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A defiant Michael Steele defends his tenure at RNC, says he may run for second term

In a contentious roundtable with reporters three days after his party's historic midterm win, Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele pushed back forcefully against criticism of his leadership at the committee over the past two years and hinted that he may be running for another two-year term.

"My hope is that folks still believe I still have something to contribute," Steele told reporters at the committee's headquarters in Washington. "And that's a decision that I have to make first, and when I do, I'll let you know."

Steele's remarks came during a question-and-answer session after a lengthy presentation in which the chairman and GOP pollster Frank Luntz argued that the RNC played a key role in shaping the party's wins on Tuesday.

Steele has been sharply criticized by those both inside and outside the GOP establishment. Critics say the RNC has misspent millions of dollars and failed to properly report its debt; they also point to numerous controversies that have rocked the committee under Steele, including an incident earlier this year in which $2,000 in RNC money was spent at a bondage-themed strip club in California. (Steele has also drawn fire for his propensity for gaffes, including his suggestion over the summer that the war in Afghanistan might not be winnable.)

Asked Friday whether he views his tenure as a success, Steele acknowledged that there may have been some bumps in the beginning

"Everybody has a learning curve, and clearly, I had mine," Steele said. "Going from coming in and being in a position publicly to look at the party, look at politics and look at the trend lines in the country and analyze them is one thing, but then being chairman of the party and having to maybe not express so vocally your views on some of these issues is another. You learn that."

Steele also argued that the reason the RNC was able to give more money to the party's campaign arms in previous cycles was because Republicans were in control of the White House and both chambers back then.

"Yeah, you can raise $40 million when you've got the Congress and the White House and the Senate," Steele said. "We don't have that now, number one. Number two, the playing field has changed. Political committees are no longer major-dollar committees."

He went on to note that American Crossroads, a conservative outside group with ties to former White House adviser Karl Rove, had a single donor who contributed $7 million to the group - a huge contribution that the RNC is barred from receiving due to campaign finance laws.

"It would take me 150,000 donors to equal that one donor when you look at our average donation to the Republican National Committee of 47 dollars, because that's what the campaign finance laws have done," Steele said. "That one donor who wrote a check to that 527 can only write the Republican National Committee $30,400, period."

Asked by a reporter whether that meant he rejected criticism that the committee should have tightened its pursestrings from the beginning, Steele shot back by questioning whether the reporter meant he shouldn't have paid off the debt of the party's two campaign arms.

"Are you asking me was that an ill-timed or inappropriate investment to make?" Steele asked.

Asked by another reporter whether he thought that all of the money that the committee spent had been spent wisely, Steele answered, "I do."

"Overall, I think we've made very smart investments early, and we've reaped the benefit of those investments by winning elections," he added.

Despite the hail of criticism he has weathered, Steele is considered to be laying the groundwork for another potential run for chairman. He has traveled and sent money in recent months to Guam, Puerto Rico, the Northern Mariana Islands and the U.S. Virgin Islands, all territories whose delegations have the same clout as those of U.S. states when it comes time to the elect the committee's next chairman.

Asked what he's considering as he mulls a potential bid, Steele responded that he's thinking of "a whole lot of stuff" including what more he can contribute and his vision of where the party should be.

"I tend to be kind of a long-ball thinker, so I kind of look down the road not just to winning this cycle but how do we win going forward, where do we win, what new areas should we be competitive that we're not in right now and whether or not I can bring that to the table and that's something the party wants from me in my leadership," Steele said.

By Felicia Sonmez  | November 5, 2010; 4:00 PM ET
Categories:  Republican Party  
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