OXON HILL, Md. — His re-election bid in serious doubt, Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele sought support from members of his party's central committee Thursday as he struggled to avert defeat after a free-spending, gaffe-filled two years.
Four challengers campaigned to replace him in an unpredictable race to lead the party into the 2012 presidential and congressional campaigns.
The rivals included Wisconsin GOP chairman Reince Priebus, former Missouri chairwoman Ann Wagner and former Michigan chairman Saul Anuzis. Former Bush administration official Maria Cino also sought to take the reins of a party committee focused on limiting President Barack Obama to one term in the White House.
Weary of Steele's gaffes, missteps and high spending, many members of the cash-strapped central committee seemed eager to boot Steele from the job after only two years and make room for someone new. Steele's RNC raised almost $80 million ahead of November elections, spent all of it and then took out a $15 million loan.
The astounding sum helped deliver major gains but his gaffes and spending habits put Steele on weak footing among the RNC members. They had hoped he would be an articulate spokesman for the party out of power after 2008 and build a hefty account for the eventual 2012 presidential nominee.
Instead, they have a debt of at least $15 million and a $5 million bill for that debt due in February.
"We must start immediately to erase past debt and to restore the confidence of our donor base," said Wagner, a Bush administration ambassador who has traveled across the country for one-on-one meetings with members. "We must have these resources in order to take back the White House and complete the job that was started this year. Fundraising must come first."
A former Steele ally, Priebus enjoyed the broadest public support to replace the incumbent chairman.
But almost half of the RNC members were not publicly announcing their intentions as they met at a resort near Washington. On the sidelines of a winter meeting that opened Thursday, the candidates made promises and hoped allies could sway their friends.
"Reince's track record as chairman of the Republican Party of Wisconsin is exemplary, and an example of what the RNC chairman's office should strive to attain," Puerto Rico Gov. Luis Fortuno wrote in an e-mail to RNC members.
House Speaker John Boehner urged members to back Cino, a veteran political operative who was a deputy Cabinet secretary for President George W. Bush. She appeared to have an uphill race as the insular RNC seemed hesitant to elevate anyone outside the fraternity after tapping an outsider in Steele.
And Anuzis, who ran against Steele in 2009, again is seeking the position but seemed to have limited support for the chairmanship.
Advisers to each candidate acknowledged no one has secured enough votes to crown a new chairman on the first ballot Friday afternoon. RNC aides suggested the voting could go late into Friday evening.
In 2009, immediately after Obama took office, Steele became his party's first black chairman after six rounds of ballots. Two years later, he has shown no sign of retreating; he and his allies used what could be his final winter meeting to justify his heavy spending and loose management style.
"The RNC gained over 685,000 new donors in 2010 – one year . a pretty impressive number," said former Oklahoma Rep. J.C. Watts.
"As we go into the 2012 cycle, we have to figure out how we engage those folks," said Idaho GOP chairman Norm Semanko, a Steele ally who was named the committee's general counsel. "We can't go back to the way we did in the `70s, the `80s and even the `90s."
"Out of the pack, Michael Steele is a leader. The fundraising will come around. Just you watch," said Jody Dow, a committeewoman from Massachusetts.
Translation: Please don't fire Steele, a chairman who spent hours talking on the phone with the 168 committee members. He visited 48 states, making sure state leaders saw his interest in their local races – all funded by RNC donations that were being spent more quickly than they were collected to make major electoral gains as the public soured on Obama and his fellow Democrats.
Republicans picked up the majority 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 for those victories. Some wins, they said, were in spite of him and his gaffes.
For instance, Steele said the war in Afghanistan was a conflict of Obama's choice. Many of his advisers were forced out after it became public the RNC reimbursed a junior aide for a night in California with donors at a lesbian-themed bondage club; Steele did not attend the event.
And many state party chairmen were vocal in their disappointment that party dollars were sent to states not used to getting lots of national dollars from the RNC – Alabama, for instance – while battleground states such as Ohio felt shortchanged.