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Steele's book release, fiery rhetoric fuel dissatisfaction within GOP

By Philip Rucker and Chris Cillizza
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 9, 2010; A01

Michael S. Steele's already turbulent tenure as Republican Party chairman grew even more so this week as comments he made while releasing a new book sparked a messy feud over whether he is promoting himself at the expense of the party.

The book took GOP congressional leaders by surprise, and Steele's controversial statements in promotional interviews are intensifying dissatisfaction over his leadership style and raising concerns about the effect it could have on the party's prospects in this year's midterm elections.

In a series of defiant interviews, Steele has assailed his Republican critics, saying the bickering is distracting from the party's mission. Yet his own fiery rhetoric -- "I'm the chairman. Deal with it," Steele said Thursday -- has contributed to the distraction, dampening what Republicans viewed as an otherwise positive week after two senior Democratic senators and a once-rising-star governor bowed to the political climate and announced their retirements.

There have been recurrent intraparty attacks on Steele's management style since he was elected a year ago, as the sometimes-flamboyant chairman frequently has veered off-message. This week offered the latest kerfuffle, with the publishing of a book that GOP congressional leaders said they did not know he was writing. The chairman is promoting the book as the blueprint Republicans should follow to regain power, but party leaders said it was drafted without their input.

Some top Republicans first learned about the book, titled "Right Now: A 12-Step Program for Defeating the Obama Agenda," when Steele promoted it in television appearances, according to three top GOP congressional aides, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were unwilling to be identified as speaking ill of their party chairman.

"The book came out and everybody went, 'Whoa, what happened?' " one aide said.

The aides said that more than half a dozen Republican Senate and House leaders have been upset with Steele's remarks and the book. None has spoken out publicly against Steele -- in part, aides said, because the leaders see little benefit to continued strife within GOP ranks.

Outside Capitol Hill, however, some leading Republicans have been more outspoken. Three former Republican National Committee chairmen -- Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr., Jim Nicholson and Rich Bond -- criticized Steele last month after the Washington Times revealed he has been delivering paid speeches nationwide.

Firing back at his critics Friday, Steele said in an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network that he did not write the book for members of Congress.

"I've been in a little bit of trouble, but I don't care because I didn't write this for them," he said. For staff members who are trying to "get the chairman on message or muzzle the chairman, it's a book they don't want you to read."

Steele's book has been in the works for about a year and is separate from his role as party chairman, an RNC spokesman said. Steele has hired a public relations firm to help him book media interviews. After Republican congressional staffers pleaded with his handlers in a conference call Wednesday to "get him to stop" speaking out in interviews, Steele's RNC aides said they have "no control" over the chairman's appearances or what he says, according to people on the call.

In the book, Steele argues that grass-roots activism will return the party to its core conservative values of limited government, fiscal restraint and a strong national defense. And while promoting it, he has at times appeared to encourage the heated Tea Party protests that some Republican leaders worry could alienate independent voters.

"I'm the guy that they're afraid of because, guess what? I'm a Tea Partier, I'm a town haller, I'm a grass-roots-er," Steele said in an interview Thursday with KTRS (550 AM) in St. Louis.

When host McGraw Milhaven asked about criticism from some Republicans that he had become a "detriment" to party fundraising, Steele said: "I am in this chair. If they want it, take it from me. Until then, shut up, step back and get in the game and help us win. . . . I hope you play this tape over and over again because these folks are the problem, not the solution. Get with the program. I'm the chairman. Deal with it."

Even if the dissatisfaction with Steele intensified, forcing him from office would take an extraordinary effort because of complex rules governing the RNC and because of the absence of a consensus candidate ready to take over a party torn between its moderate and conservative wings.

Steele stirred controversy when he told Fox News Channel on Monday that he did not think the GOP would be able to retake their congressional majorities this year. On that show, he also used a term considered derogatory to Native Americans, underscoring a point about his party's agenda with the words: "Honest Injun on that." At least two members of Congress, a Republican and a Democrat, condemned Steele for the remark.

Former House speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) came to Steele's defense this week, telling reporters that he is "a fan of Steele's" even though he "makes a number of old-time Republicans very nervous."

Others' frustrations with Steele do not appear to have boiled over to a full revolt, several RNC members said Friday. "There are obviously some people not happy with Chairman Steele right now, but nobody is really talking about trying to remove him," said Chip Saltsman, a former Tennessee Republican Party chairman who ran against Steele for the national chairmanship.

Former South Carolina Republican Party chairman Katon Dawson, who finished second in that race, rejected the notion that a challenge to Steele may be in the offing.

"I don't want to be sour grapes," Dawson said. "I am not a guy who will throw mud."

Removing a party chairman is rare but not unprecedented. Jim Gilmore was forced out in 2002 after feuding with President George W. Bush's chief political strategist, Karl Rove.

In any case, firing Steele would require the votes of two-thirds of the RNC's 168 members, according to party rules. Even his most vocal detractors say that prospect is unlikely. Steele has lavished attention on the low-profile and often-ignored members of the RNC. For instance, Steele is bringing them together in Hawaii this month for the RNC's winter meeting. As a result, GOP strategists said, there is significant goodwill toward him.

Still, RNC members have taken steps to limit Steele's authority. In the spring, the committee voted to require that any spending exceeding $100,000 be approved by the executive committee or the treasurer, who is elected independently from the chairman.

When Steele became chairman last January, the RNC had $22.8 million in the bank. At the end of November, the RNC reported having $8.7 million on hand as it headed into an election year with 37 gubernatorial races and dozens of competitive Senate and House contests.

Although the RNC raised about $84 million over that period, it spent $90 million, according to the party's financial records.

Curt Anderson, an RNC consultant and Steele ally, said criticizing the chairman is distracting the party at a time when Democrats appear vulnerable.

"If the goal is to beat the Democrats, and for me it is, I don't see what all this infighting is accomplishing," Anderson said. "There are a lot of bored Republican folks right now engaged in pettiness. I have no interest in adding to that."

Dawson agreed, saying the only way Republicans can exploit the favorable national climate is if their leaders work together.

"This is a team sport," Dawson said. "You can't win this thing unless you put all the players on the field."

Research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.

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