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RNC Chair's Remarks on Abortion Draw Criticism

Republican National Committee Chairman Michael S. Steele referred to abortion as an "individual choice."
Republican National Committee Chairman Michael S. Steele referred to abortion as an "individual choice." (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
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By Chris Cillizza and Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, March 13, 2009

Republican National Committee Chairman Michael S. Steele was on the receiving end of a fresh round of criticism from prominent party members yesterday after an interview was released in which he referred to abortion as an "individual choice."

His comments to GQ magazine inflamed abortion opponents, one of the GOP's core constituencies, and further complicated an already difficult first month on the job for Steele.

Former Ohio secretary of state J. Kenneth Blackwell, who endorsed Steele in the RNC chairman's race, harshly condemned the remark. "Chairman Steele needs to reread the Bible, the U.S. Constitution and the 2008 GOP Platform," Blackwell said. "He then needs to get to work or get out of the way."

Mike Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor and 2008 presidential candidate, called Steele's comments "very troubling" in a post on his Huck PAC Web site. Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, condemned Steele's comments as "cavalier" and "flippant," adding that the chairman's remarks "reinforce the belief by many social conservatives that one major party is unfriendly while the other gives only lip service to core moral issues."

Steele backtracked quickly after the release of the interview, conducted weeks ago, issuing a statement yesterday morning. "I tried to present why I am pro life while recognizing that my mother had a 'choice' before deciding to put me up for adoption," Steele said in the statement. "I thank her every day for supporting life."

Later in the day , Huckabee spoke directly with Steele and pronounced himself pleased. "I'm grateful that Chairman Steele was willing to set the record straight without hesitation," Huckabee wrote on his Web site.

Some antiabortion activists said they are satisfied with Steele's explanation. James Bopp Jr., a lawyer and abortion rights opponent, said he has "never had any doubt that Steele is personally pro-life" and added that Steele's "clarification was needed and should put this to rest."

Steele also received votes of confidence from two of his former rivals for the RNC chairmanship. Saul Anuzis, a past chairman of the Michigan Republican Party, said the comments will have "little effect" on Steele's chairmanship, while Chip Saltsman, a former head of the Tennessee Republican Party, acknowledged that his one-time rival is "off to a slow start, [but] I have a lot of faith in him."

Katon Dawson, the outgoing chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party and the runner-up in the chairman's race, was in Washington yesterday for meetings with members of the state's congressional delegation as well as several conservative groups. The trip had been arranged more than a month ago, according to one South Carolina source, and had nothing to do with Steele's recent troubles or any effort to supplant him.

Despite the misgivings, several party sources said that in the near term, Steele remains secure in his position, citing the difficulty of removing him, the desire to quell the appearance of further chaos within the party and the willingness to allow him time to establish himself.

"He hasn't even had time to get his full management team in place, much less develop and implement his plan," said Gary Jones, chairman of the Oklahoma Republican Party, who called questions about Steele's future as RNC chairman "counterproductive."

Steele, who was elected at least in part because of his willingness to be an active media presence, has produced a string of verbal gaffes since he claimed the chairmanship in late January. He sent out "some slum love" to Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal during a radio interview with Curtis Sliwa, told his detractors to "stuff it" in an interview with the Washington Times and, most notably, denounced conservative talk radio host Rush Limbaugh's show as "incendiary" and "ugly" before recanting those comments and apologizing less than 24 hours later.

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