At Republican National Committee meeting in Hawaii, Steele covers range of topics

By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 29, 2010

HONOLULU -- The Republican Party's often-flamboyant chairman took on a raft of issues Thursday as GOP leaders gathered here for their winter meeting, bouncing from politics and populism to purity and paradise.

Defiant at times during a wide-ranging news conference on the second day of the gathering, Michael S. Steele continued to attack a proposal by some conservative Republican National Committee members to withhold party money from GOP candidates who do not pass a "purity" test. Hours later, key Republicans crafted a compromise that could head off a looming dispute over whether to require an ideological test.

Steele defended his decision to convene the meeting at a lush beach resort even as millions of Americans are without jobs. And, asked whether he would run in 2011 for a second two-year term, he left little doubt: "I have no reason not to."

"My style is not something you get used to very easily," Steele told reporters, boasting of the GOP's electoral victories on his watch. "As much as a lot of you folks may find me fascinating to write about and to opine on and to theorize and to, you know, put out there as some example, whatever, God, I don't know what, but at the end of the day, it's not about me. . . . This is about the Republican Party."

Steele, who was roundly criticized for controversial statements he made earlier this month while promoting his new book, has appeared at ease at the RNC meeting. He brushed away criticism -- including from within his own party -- for holding the meeting in Honolulu, saying he is "frustrated" by reports highlighting the luxurious accommodations he and party leaders are enjoying. The location, Steele said, makes a powerful statement about the party's ambitions for November's midterm elections.

"We're in [President] Obama's birthplace," Steele said. "This is his back yard. And I wanted to make sure that everyone across the country knew that this party would compete on every inch of soil in this nation. Whether it's Illinois or Hawaii, we're going to be here, and we're going to compete."

Delivering the keynote address Thursday, Hawaii Gov. Linda Lingle (R) served up red-meat rhetoric to committee members by assailing the Obama administration's handling of terrorism suspects.

"You treat these people in the same way as if they just robbed a convenience store, and you use our tax money to hire them lawyers to go to civilian courts. You're proving to the people that you're out of touch with how average Americans feel," she said to rousing applause.

The Justice Department has noted that its critics were silent when George W. Bush's administration successfully prosecuted dozens of terrorists in criminal court.

Lingle's remarks came as RNC members have been plotting strategies to win back control in the midterms. Part of those plans, Republican leaders said, is to use the Supreme Court's ruling last week on campaign finance law to the GOP's advantage. The decision upended decades of restrictions on corporations being able to use their profits to finance campaigns for and against candidates.

But Robert Bickhart, the RNC's finance director, told reporters that he thinks the potential impact of the ruling has been exaggerated. "The thought that there's going to be this influx and free flow of corporate dollars into the political conversation I think is certainly exaggerated," he said.

Steele said he would meet with former House Republican leader Richard K. Armey (Tex.), president of Freedom Works, a group that has worked with the conservative "tea party" movement, who is in Honolulu to discuss ways to include independent grass-roots activists in the GOP tent.

But Steele continued his opposition to the purity proposal that some tea party leaders support. Named after the late president Ronald Reagan, the resolution would deny GOP support and money to candidates who do not adhere to at least eight of 10 listed conservative principles.

"The idea of creating a test to be a Republican, a test to be a candidate for office in the Republican Party, to me feels counter to everything Ronald Reagan has stood for and everything this party historically stood for," he said.

The chairman's statements, coupled with a unanimous vote Wednesday by about two dozen state party chairmen to oppose the purity test, effectively ensured the resolution's defeat.

On Thursday, a key RNC committee settled on the compromise resolution, which would require party leaders to consider whether candidates believe in key principles but would not penalize them either way, members said. The full RNC is expected to vote on the alternative Friday.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company