01/03/2011 02:55 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Steele Pitches Outreach To Minorities, Non-Republicans In RNC Chair Debate

WASHINGTON -- Monday's debate between incumbent Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele and his challengers lacked the fireworks and recriminations that many expected. The candidates offered wide agreement on predictable subjects: They declared voter fraud a major problem, the Tea Party a godsend, spending out of control and abortion due to be outlawed.

Some of the candidates stressed unity, too. "The bigger issue is saving our country," Wisconsin Republican Party Chairman Reince Priebus said. "We can save our party along the way."

"In the last ten years, one of the biggest failures of the Republican Party was too much spending," Ann Wagner of Missouri, a former RNC co-chair, said in another typical boilerplate statement. There wasn't much debate on either issue.

Considering that the committee chair is primarily a campaign position and its holder doesn't actually set party policy, the exercise was less an ideological litmus test than a dress rehearsal for the public stage that the winner will assume. With that in mind, Steele returned to an argument he used during his first bid for the chair: Among the field of candidates, he said, he best understands the necessity of reaching minority voters.

"We stopped talking to people," said Steele of his party's downfall in earlier election cycles. "We stopped trying to connect directly with people. We stopped expanding and reaching. We are the party of Lincoln, we are the party that understands the value of the individual in this American enterprise ... When we stopped talking to our friends in the Latino community and the African American community, and when we stopped engaging with individuals and we make assumptions about, 'Well, they don't vote for us anyway,' that's when we really start to lose. And going forward, we will lose big if we lose sight of the fact that America is not the America of the 1950s or 1960 or even the 1990s. It is a very different day."

Complacency, Steele added later, doesn't help the party or anyone else. "As Republicans we do get a little comfortable with ourselves, and we do become so to the exclusion and detriment of others," he said. "We have an enormous opportunity with the surge that we've seen in Tea Party activism and the engagement of voters, by and large, to really open up the doors of this party and let a new light shine in on it. Some new fresh faces and voices that don't look and sound like us, that don't have the same walk or background or experience, but bring a wealth of new ideas to the table. We tried to do that through our coalition department at the RNC, created out of whole cloth with the idea of making it grassroots-focused and -oriented."

Steele's pitch as an ambassador to minority Republicans did stand out among the platitudes and talking points that otherwise dominated the debate -- at one point, he cited Frederick Douglass as his political hero. That angle may not prove successful for Steele, but it's the one feature of his stewardship that can't be overtly criticized by his opponents, in stark contrast to his term's weak fundraising, get-out-the-vote operations and the chairman's own often-controversial public statements.

Later in the debate -- which was sponsored by Americans for Tax Reform, the Daily Caller and Susan B. Anthony List -- another Steele opponent, former Michigan GOP Chair Saul Anuzis, echoed the very same pitch.

"We can't just kind of come in 60 days before an election and say we care about the African-American vote or we can't show up 30 days before the election and show up at some event and pretend like we care," said Anuzis. "In Michigan we were very lucky this time around. We elected an Arab American, African American, a Hispanic American, all in predominantly white districts."