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National party chairman Michael Steele hits trail for GOP in Hawaii

By Jason Horowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 8, 2010; C03

HONOLULU-- On Sunday afternoon, Gene Ward, a Republican state representative, stood on a stage with his back to the turquoise port in a corner of the sleepy Aloha Tower Marketplace. He had been called on to lead members of the Hawaii GOP in the Pledge of Allegiance, and also to hype the return of the party's national chairman.

"The man of steel!" Ward shouted, warming up the crowd for Michael S. Steele. "He is going to talk to you about steeling your spines in preparation for this election!"

Steele emerged a few moments later from under the Aloha Tower. Wearing a pink Hawaiian shirt with sunglasses tucked into the breast pocket and a yellow lei hanging around the collar, he looked relaxed as he gave a hug to the local party honcho.

"I love all the 50 states -- last time I checked, this was one of them," said Steele, in an interview before he went onstage. He then rattled off his itinerary, territories and all. "This is part of a western leg that we are doing," he said. "We are here today and tomorrow, but then we go to Guam, Saipan. They have some great candidates running out there as well."

Steele's last visit to Hawaii was for his party's winter strategy session, a decision that prompted guffaws among image-conscious critics within the party. This visit, two months before the November elections, is also causing some Republican consternation.

Remote locales like Hawaii and especially Guam may prove more crucial to Steele's future than to his party's. According to party rules, territories have as much say as states in choosing the chairman. Steele campaigned hard for this bloc of delegates, who put him over the top in his pursuit of the chairmanship.

Now Steele, as he lends his national profile in far-flung fundraisers, appears to be returning the favor.

"It has nothing to do" with shoring up support for his own chairmanship, he said, as boats glided in the sunlight behind him. He said that as long as his critics are "helping us win in November, they can talk all they want. If they are not doing anything about electing Republicans this November, they just need to be quiet until the elections are over."

Steele was surrounded by a sparse crowd of about 75, most sporting Hawaiian shirts and sundresses and enjoying plates of tempura. "We have paid a lot of attention to Hawaii and our territories because they are very part of this overall reemergence of the party," Steele said to a Hawaii News Now crew. "We have seen some great success here in Hawaii, and we are looking forward to further success in November."

A few moments later, Cam Cavasso, a Republican seeking to unseat the powerful eight-term Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D), looked a little starstruck as he shook Steele's hand.

"We do expect to win this race," he assured the chairman.

"Look, you hear candidates say that a lot," Steele said, using Cavasso's optimism as an opportunity to emphasize his point that races all around the country deserve his full attention. "And people kind of dismiss it. But in this environment, this time around, there is a different vibration out there with the voters."

As Steele received tidings from more candidates and Republican activists, James R. "Duke" Aiona Jr., the state's lieutenant governor and a candidate for governor, explained why he thought Steele liked coming to Hawaii so much.

"You see the diversity we have here," said Aiona, who is of Hawaiian, Portuguese and Chinese descent. He gestured towards the Asian, Caucasian and racially varied lineup of GOP candidates schmoozing in the courtyard. "And I believe this is about the state of the Republican Party in the future. I think Michael sees that and appreciates that, and we've always been left out."

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