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Posted at 7:55 AM ET, 01/ 3/2011

Michael Steele faces down his rivals

By Chris Cillizza

As we hit 2011, Morning Fix is changing! Expect the same great -- we hope! -- reporting and analysis, but now in a briefer format and with more links to the stories you need to read to get your Fix in the a.m. And as always, let us know what you think! We value your suggestions. And if you're not yet getting Morning Fix in your e-mail inbox, be sure to click here.

Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele has been almost entirely silent since the November election.

He popped up briefly last month to announce -- shockingly -- that he would seek a second term to his post, but since then has spoken through surrogates.

Monday, for the first time since becoming chairman of the RNC in early 2009, Steele will face down his critics in the first debate of the abbreviated race.

The get-together--co-sponsored by Americans for Tax Reform and the Daily Caller, a conservative Web site--will feature all five candidates in the race. (A sixth -- former RNC political director Gentry Collins -- dropped his bid late Sunday night. He was not expected to have been a significant factor in the contest.)

(You can watch the debate, which begins at 1 p.m., on the Daily Caller site.)

It's a near-certainty that Steele will be the center of attention as each of the other four contenders -- Wisconsin state party chairman Reince Priebus, former RNC official Maria Cino, former Michigan party chairman Saul Anuzis and former Ambassador Ann Wagner -- seek to differentiate themselves from the controversial chairman.

How Steele does in the debate may be a matter more of curiosity than consequence, however. Outside of a small cadre of allies on the 168-member committee, there is little expectation that the incumbent will be anything other than a spoiler in the vote, which will happen during the committee's winter meeting later this month.

In other words, the re-emergence of Steele as candidate is sure to draw attention to the debate. But, remember that the drama on stage almost certainly matters less than it might appear. Steele is, until further notice, a sideshow in the race to replace him. Even for those candidates with a good chance of winning the chairmanship, RNC insiders say, the debate is expecting to have minimal impact in terms of winning support from committee members.

"The closer we get to the election the more critical each 'opportunity' is," said David Norcross, an influential committeeman supporting Priebus. "Having said that I don't think the stakes are terrifically high. The decision will be based mostly on considerations other than debate performance."

Curt Anderson, a Republican consultant who helped elect Steele but has since broken with the chairman, added that it was far more likely a candidate could lose votes with a poor performance rather than gain them with a strong one.

Plot thickens for Capito

Former West Virginia Secretary of State Betty Ireland (R) jumped into the state's governor's race on Friday, a move that could have some bearing on Rep. Shelley Moore Capito's (R) 2012 plans.

Capito, who is the top GOP prospect in the state, chose not to run in the special election for a Senate seat last year -- a race that was won by then-Gov. Joe Manchin (D). With Manchin now in Washington, a special election may be called for the seat he's leaving behind.

Adding to the intrigue are two things: Manchin needing to run for a full term in 2012 if he wants to retain his Senate seat, and the uncertainty about whether the next governor's race will be in 2011 or 2012.

Capito is thought to be both a potential Manchin challenger and a potential gubernatorial candidate. With Ireland now in the governor's race, it seems more likely Capito would run in the open primary for Senate (indeed, top-flight candidates sometimes work these things out in private beforehand).

Both races should be attractive and winnable for Capito, but now she's got incentive to run for Senate rather than governor. But with Capito already having passed once on the race in a good environment, why would she run for Senate now? And don't forget, she's the daughter of a former governor.

Huntsman for president, after all?

Jon Huntsman, the Republican former Utah governor whom President Obama picked as his ambassador to China two years ago, is now toying with the idea of running against the president.

Newsweek, in a must-read piece this weekend, quotes the ambassador saying "we may have one final run left in our bones." When asked specifically about a 2012 run, Huntsman declined to comment.

Huntsman, once seen as a GOP rising star, was largely ruled out as a 2012 contender following his appointment -- and for good reason. With the GOP base ginned up against all things Obama, it's hard to see why Huntsman, who can be attached to the president about as easily as Florida Gov. Charlie Crist was, would think he can win a Republican presidential primary.

Sources close to Huntsman insist, however, that he is very serious about a 2012 bid.

Tidbits:

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) says Mitt Romney looks like the GOP frontrunner in 2012.

Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine says he plans to stay on in his current job through 2012. So with Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) unsure about running for reelection, Democrats' top alternative to become the next Virginia senator (Kaine is a former governor of Virginia) is now otherwise occupied.

Rep. Danny Davis (D-Ill.) has ended his campaign for mayor of Chicago and has endorsed former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun (D).

Oklahoma Republican National Committeewoman Carolyn McLarty has endorsed former RNC co-chairwoman Ann Wagner for RNC chair.

Rory Reid, fresh off a loss in Nevada's governor's race, is now being talked up as a candidate for Nevada's new congressional seat.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) says he won't investigate the White House's job offer to Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Pa.).

With Aaron Blake and Felicia Sonmez

By Chris Cillizza  | January 3, 2011; 7:55 AM ET
Categories:  Morning Fix  
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