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GOP chairman Michael Steele is out front, attracting detractors

Michael Steele attends a GOP dinner in Indianapolis. Associates say he sees the party as a consumer brand that needs to be marketed through appearances and blog entries.
Michael Steele attends a GOP dinner in Indianapolis. Associates say he sees the party as a consumer brand that needs to be marketed through appearances and blog entries. (Melina Mara/the Washington Post)
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By Philip Rucker and Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 4, 2010

The camera pans across a bucolic river and a sunny cornfield, an American flag flapping in the breeze, as narrator Michael S. Steele waxes about the freedom to dream and achieve. Then, with the Statue of Liberty sweeping into the shot, comes a dire warning that freedom is fragile: Democrats, he says, are "experimenting with America."

The camera zooms in on a bespectacled Steele, who asks viewers for donations. "Our freedom," he says with a smile, "it's worth fighting for."

The television advertisement, which aired in selected markets last month, is vintage Steele -- affable, charismatic and seizing the spotlight. But the ad's star is not running for anything. He's the chairman of the Republican National Committee, with a mandate to promote his party rather than himself.

Steele has put a public face on what had been largely a behind-the-scenes job, hoping to foster what he has called a "hip-hop" Republican renaissance. That high profile has been accompanied by a record of lavish spending and a string of gaffes, leading some party activists to complain that Steele revels in the perks of the office while neglecting some of the onerous work necessary to reclaim majorities in the House and Senate. This narrative grew more damaging last week with the disclosure that RNC staffers approved a $1,900 bill at a Hollywood nightclub that features topless dancers mimicking lesbian sex acts while wearing bondage gear.

Still there have been no calls for Steele's ouster, and some top Republicans have calculated that there is no upside in forcing out the first black chairman of a party largely dominated by white Southerners -- especially not while the GOP is winning under his watch. Steele claimed credit for recent Republican victories in Massachusetts, Virginia and New Jersey, telling reporters in January: "I won two governorships and a host of special elections."

Steele, through a spokesman, declined several requests for interviews.

Some Republicans question Steele's contribution to the party's recent successes. Nevertheless, "to the victor go the spoils," said Ron Kaufman, a former RNC chairman who worked against Steele in the leadership race. "Is the party better off today than the day Michael Steele got elected? It's very hard to say no, on almost every level. . . . The bottom line is the coach gets the credit. They're paid to win, and we're winning."

Yet some prominent party leaders, including three former RNC chairmen, are sidestepping his operation with independent efforts to help Republicans win in the critical November midterm elections. And they are raising millions of dollars from the party's biggest donors, some of whom have stopped giving to the RNC amid the furor over Steele's leadership.

Mark DeMoss, who joined the ranks of big RNC donors after giving $15,000 in 2008, said he would not contribute to the RNC this year because he was offended by an internal fundraising strategy that surfaced last month featuring a caricature of President Obama as the Joker and linking Democratic leaders with socialism.

"I am ashamed," DeMoss said of the PowerPoint presentation. "It was an example of incivility . . . It's representative of a growing mind-set within Republican circles, and I don't want to associate with that."

Then came the nightclub story. Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, a conservative Christian organization, e-mailed several hundred thousand supporters last week urging them not to give money to the RNC. "What I see is a pattern that suggests that they're tone deaf to the values and concerns of so many of the people they're looking to for financial support," Perkins said. "There are some cultural issues at the RNC."

Stepped out of a crowd

To understand how this one-term lieutenant governor from Maryland became his party's national chairman, go back to the day he was selected, Jan. 30, 2009. It was one week after Obama's historic inauguration, and many in the Republican Party were demoralized and seeking new direction.


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