WASHINGTON — Although absent from the hotel ballroom and his name largely unspoken, Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele dominated Wednesday's debate among candidates who want to replace him.
At the first public forum for those pursuing the chairmanship, party fundraising and Steele's tenure at the helm of the GOP's central committee played prominently in the discussion that took place on stage between a U.S. flag and a "Don't Tread on Me" banner popular among tea party activists. Four potential future chairs criticized the RNC but steered clear of naming the polarizing incumbent chairman and his record-breaking spending.
"The party under his leadership failed to raise the major donor money it is going to require to defeat Barack Obama," said Gentry Collins, who headed the powerful political department of the RNC and is now weighing a campaign for chairman.
"It's money first, it's money second and it's money third," said Ann Wagner, a former Missouri state GOP chair and a former ambassador.
"A fully funded RNC is the only way we're going to take back the White House and the United States Senate," Wagner added.
Republicans picked up at least 63 seats in the House, 10 governorships and added six Senate seats in November's elections. The party also gained control of 19 more state legislative chambers and now hold their highest level of state legislative seats since 1928.
But many party insiders caution against crediting Steele, who has not said whether he will seek another two-year term, for those victories.
Steele's RNC raised almost $80 million ahead of the elections and spent all of it, then took out a $15 million loan. The astounding sum helped deliver major gains in last month's elections but put Steele on weak footing among the 168 voting members of the RNC.
Those who have declared their candidacy – or are mulling one seriously enough to appear on stage – made swipes at Steele's record largely without uttering the name of Steele, the former Maryland lieutenant governor. The first mention came almost 90 minutes into the two-hour forum.
Collins said as many as two dozen more House seats could have been won had Steele raised more cash; he estimated the RNC would need to raise more than $400 million to have a shot at making Obama a one-term president.
"The problem we had in 2010 is that we did not have the resources to deploy the ground game," said Collins, who resigned as the party's top political strategist in a scathing public letter just after last month's elections.
Kentucky committeeman Robert M. "Mike" Duncan emphasized his record in politics, including his tenure as RNC chairman during former President George W. Bush's administration but overlooking his role leading the party during the disastrous 2008 elections.
Duncan's goal for the RNC: "Regain the stature of being the premier political organization in this country and in this world" and "throw out the Barack Obama regime."
Saul Anuzis, a committeeman from Michigan who ran against Steele in 2009 for chairman, said the RNC must marshal its power and immediately begin work to defeat Obama's expected re-election bid in 2012.
"What we need is a different focus. We need a different direction. We need new priorities," he said.
But those things take money, he conceded.
"We have lost the confidence of donors," he said.
Third-party groups raised in months what Steele raised during his two-year chairmanship. They funneled massive amounts of money to races for ads that blistered opponents, bypassing the RNC for groups led by veteran operatives Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie.
Many RNC members say that is not a sustainable practice and had detailed questions for Steele's potential successors, who are at various stages in their bids.
Anuzis has announced his candidacy. Collins, a former Iowa GOP chairman and operative who is warmly regarded among RNC members, has formed a committee to explore a chairman's race. So, too, have Wagner and Maria Cino, a New York native who served in the Bush administration and planned the 2008 Republican nominating convention.
Duncan, who lost his re-election bid for chairman in 2009, surprised many when he appeared at Wednesday's debate. The name card in front of him was written by hand.
A group of committee members, meanwhile, is courting Wisconsin GOP chairman and RNC lawyer Reince Priebus, who ran Steele's 2009 bid for chairman but has not ruled out challenging his ally.
Connecticut chairman Chris Healy also is weighing a run and is expected to make a decision this week.