By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 11, 2010; A03
NEW ORLEANS -- Michael S. Steele, the embattled chairman of the Republican National Committee, ended a three-day GOP pep rally with a subdued speech in which he acknowledged mistakes but cautioned against allowing opponents to capitalize on those errors during a midterm election year.
Democrats, he said, would "love nothing more than for us to keep pointing fingers at me and others instead of their radical, un-American agenda. We shouldn't fall for that trap."
"I'm the first here to admit I've made mistakes," Steele told a dwindling crowd at the end of the Southern Republican Leadership Conference. "It's been incumbent on me to take responsibility, shoulder that burden, make the necessary changes and move on."
As the audience applauded, Steele added, "But the one mistake we cannot make this November is to lose."
Steele was referring to a series of headline-grabbing missteps at the RNC, most recently a nearly-$2,000 expenditure at a sex-themed nightclub in Hollywood. Steele's speech came amid scattered calls for his resignation and less than a week after the RNC's chief of staff was forced out in an effort to reassure donors concerned about the organization's spending.
But like the roster of big-name Republicans who spoke earlier at the conference, including Sarah Palin, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.), Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and Newt Gingrich, Steele spent most of his time issuing blistering attacks on President Obama and the Democratic-controlled Congress. And he urged the audience to work hard to return Republicans to power in November.
In past years, the Southern Republican Leadership Conference has served as an early coming-out party for potential presidential contenders, and this year it attracted its share. In a presidential straw poll Saturday, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who did not attend, edged out Paul by a single vote. Each man collected about 24 percent of more than 1,800 ballots cast for nine prospective candidates.
But most of the rhetoric and energy at the conference was targeted at 2010 rather than 2012, with all eyes focused squarely on harnessing grass-roots energy and anger at Washington.
Yet Steele's troubles remained an undercurrent. Some Republicans spoke of the "distractions" of recent gaffes at the RNC. Speaking Friday, Jindal even made a joke at Steele's expense: "A word of warning to RNC staffers," he said. "You may want to stay away from Bourbon Street."
Barbour, a former RNC chairman and now the chairman of the Republican Governors Association, said in an interview that other Republican groups would be able to step in and do the job of raising money and electing candidates this year if the RNC were unable to do so.
The controversies at the RNC "won't be material," he said, "because with several months between now and the elections, the other committees can prepare if the RNC doesn't do as much as they usually do."
Barbour said he doesn't think Steele should step down -- and he doesn't think he will.
Some good news for Steele that emerged during the conference was an open letter in support of him signed by the Republican Party chairmen from 29 states, plus the District of Columbia and Guam.
And a number of Republican activists who attended the program said Steele's travails are less relevant than the energy and enthusiasm that the conference helped stir up in advance of the fall elections.
"It's probably not going away," said Frank Scalia, a retiree from Monroe, La., who was attending the conference with his wife, Marilou. "I know that he has to be a good steward of the finances. But I think Michael Steele is a good man, and we're very fortunate to have him."