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.
Steele allies insisted that the GQ interview came amid a difficult transition from talking head to the leader of a major national party.
According to those close to him, Steele understands that he must establish himself as a far more disciplined messenger going forward. They say he has already begun turning down high-profile interview requests to take the spotlight off himself in the short term.
"The biography period is now over," said Jim Dyke, a consultant to the RNC. Dyke added that Steele has now adopted a "laserlike focus on energizing, organizing and activating Republicans to win elections."
Earlier this month, the RNC transferred $1 million each to the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee, and yesterday Steele announced that he will send $100,000 to the New York Republican Party to assist in the March 31 special election to replace appointed Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D) in the Upstate 20th District.
Steele has also won kudos within GOP circles for the top-to-bottom review of the RNC's operations that was led by a committee of 10 state party chairmen and committee members. And, after enduring criticism for the slow pace of senior staff hires, the RNC announced yesterday that Ken McKay, a former chief of staff and campaign manager for Rhode Island Gov. Don Carcieri, will take over as executive director of the committee.
In a memo to party members, Florida GOP Chairman Jim Greer, a Steele supporter, urged Republicans to focus on uniting behind Steele for the coming months.
"Republicans nationwide -- must speak forcefully in support of Chairman Steele and drown out the vocal minority," he wrote. "To do anything less is a disservice to our party. Be patient and let our Chairman build the administration that is right for him and right for our Party."