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New chairman Priebus cleans up RNC after Michael Steele’s tumultuous tenure

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After two tumultuous years, the Republican National Committee is getting back to business.

The hangover from former RNC chairman Michael Steele’s tenure still hasn’t faded. But the new party chairman, Reince Priebus, has begun to restore order and to replenish the committee’s depleted bank account. Whether he can raise enough money and create the machinery needed to help the party’s 2012 nominee compete against President Obama and his seasoned political operation will be the real test of his chairmanship.

Priebus, the former Wisconsin GOP chairman, is taking things a step at a time: restore connections with the party’s major donors, party leaders on Capitol Hill and K Street; chip away at the debt he inherited from Steele; build up a substantial bank account; ensure that the 2012 nominating process is orderly; and retool the party’s once-vaunted voter mobilization program.

“I fully understand that my top priority here at the RNC is to rebuild trust and credibility, and I would say that everything I do, the entire common denominator, whether it be earning trust on the Hill, earning trust with reporters, earning trust with donors and grass roots and all the states, is trust and credibility,” Priebus said during an interview late Friday in his office.

When Priebus arrived at RNC headquarters after defeating Steele and others for the party’s top job, he found the following financial situation: cash on hand of little more than $350,000, with payroll of $400,000 due six days later. The overall debt stood at $24 million.

By the end of March, the party had $3.2 million cash on hand and debt of $19.8 million. Although the debt is still substantial, it is only a couple of million dollars more than the Democratic National Committee is carrying. Priebus believes that to show progress, getting the debt under $20 million was critical. Now he feels he has breathing room to manage the party’s finances more intelligently.

Steele’s neglect of major donors was well-known, but the problem was even more severe than advertised. According to a party source who declined to be identified in order to share internal accounting details, the RNC’s major donor program had generally brought in $40 million to $45 million during previous two-year cycles. During Steele’s tenure, the program raised just $7 million.

One of Priebus’s early steps was to meet with a who’s who of major Republican donors to enlist their help in getting the committee back in financial shape. They have responded enthusiastically. But can Priebus help put the party’s 2012 nominee in a financial position to go up against an opponent who threatens to raise close to a billion dollars?

“I think we’re going to have an incredible national finance operation that will rival whatever machine Barack Obama can put into place,” he said.

Priebus said his goal is to have money “coming out of the windows” at party headquarters. “We need to turn the RNC into a slot machine, and it’s our intention to do that so we can fully fund a presidential campaign as soon as we have a nominee,” Priebus said. “Everybody’s committed to that.”

With that money, Priebus said, his top priority is to build a voter-mobilization operation “that is the absolute gold standard.” That would include a revitalized voter registration program and an absentee ballot program with the technical sophistication to track people who haven’t returned their ballots and knock on their doors, if necessary, to get those ballots filed. It also includes “a massive youth movement” on college campuses and elsewhere across the country to offset what Obama was able to do in 2008 in mobilizing young voters.

Obama’s campaign broke the mold in 2008 with its use of social networking and new technology. Priebus has launched a 60-day audit of the RNC’s social media operations and said he thinks the committee can compete effectively in that arena in 2012.

“They did a nice job in social media and caught the wave in social media when it was fresh,” he said of Obama’s campaign. “And they spent a ton of money on the program. I think ’08 came down to a movement and boatloads of money. . . . We have to have millions upon millions being spent in this area.”

Priebus brushed off frustration within the party about the strength of the field of Republican presidential candidates. He recalled that in 1991, many Democrats were lamenting the absence of strong candidates to go up against President George H.W. Bush, only to see Bill Clinton emerge to win the election the following year.

“I get the sense that people are pretty satisfied that we’re going to have a lot of candidates in the race and that there’s going to be a very diverse choice,” he said. “I think there’s more frustration over Barack Obama’s policies and what he’s done economically to our country than frustration with our candidates.”

During the interview, Priebus sought to clarify his views on Donald Trump, a prospective 2012 GOP candidate, and Trump’s repeated questioning of Obama’s birth in the United States.

“I believe that the president was born in Hawaii,” he said, “but at the end of the day, I’m not sitting around worrying about this stuff. I worry about what I need to do at the RNC to defeat Barack Obama.”

Does he believe Trump’s focus on the issue hurts the party? “I think Trump can do and say whatever he wants to,” he said. “I think it’s up to the primary voters to decide which candidate in the field of candidates that we put on the field they want to choose to be our nominee to defeat Barack Obama.”

Republicans face internal divisions and a potentially bruising nomination battle. They also could have trouble keeping tea party and other conservative activists happy amid compromises with Obama on the budget this year.

Asked how Republicans avoid becoming tagged as the party of austerity in the debate over the country’s fiscal future, he said: “We have to do a good job at educating voters as to how serious these threats to our economy actually are. . . . We have a country that’s about to walk off of a fiscal cliff.”

Looking to 2012, Priebus said he thinks Republicans will be in a different posture than they were in 2008. “I think the president’s going to be playing defense,” he said. “We’re going to be doing more punching this time around than blocking, and I think that makes a big difference when it comes down to winning in 2012.”

Priebus also knows how much work remains to get his party ready for that contest.

© The Washington Post Company