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Posted at 2:30 PM ET, 01/12/2011

Handicapping the Republican National Committee chair race: The Final Edition

By Chris Cillizza

Less than two days before the vote to select a new chairman of the Republican National Committee takes place, uncertainty still reigns in a race more defined by who won't win than who will.

What's become clear as the race has matured in the new year is that current RNC Chairman Michael Steele has no path to victory.

And yet, Steele remains the central mover in the race, not only because the campaigns of the other four candidates -- Wisconsin Republican party chairman Reince Priebus, former ambassador Ann Wagner, former RNC official Maria Cino and former Michigan Republican party chairman Saul Anuzis -- are positioning themselves in various ways as a rebuttal to the Steele's tenure but also because the main unanswered question in the race is where the incumbent's support will go after the first ballot.

Steele is expected to win a significant number of votes on the first ballot as a sort of "thank you" for his service and willingness to spread money and organizational resources around to states (and territories) that have typically been ignored by the RNC.

That vote total is estimated to be somewhere in the 40s although Steele allies insist he could win as many as 60 votes on the first ballot, which seems VERY improbable.

Assuming Steele comes up short of 60, which is generally regarded as a minimum number an incumbent chairman would need to maintain momentum heading into subsequent ballots, the second ballot will be the one to watch as the four other candidates seek to siphon off Steele's support.

That second ballot will be most important to Priebus who is a former Steele ally -- he ran the chairman's successful 2009 campaign -- and is expected to finish in a close second to Steele on the initial ballot (or perhaps even ahead of the incumbent).

If Priebus can claim a sizable chunk of Steele's support in the second round of voting, he could well position himself to win outright on a third ballot -- assuming other candidates bow out once the writing is on the wall.

If Priebus is unable to harvest a decent number of Steele first ballot backers, however, the weight of expectations for the frontrunner could be crushing -- allowing Wagner, Anuzis or even Cino to emerge as the momentum candidate in subsequent ballots.

Here's our final handicapping of where the five candidates stand heading into the balloting on Friday (candidates are ranked in order of public commitments -- via the Hotline's terrific count):

* Reince Priebus (38 public commitments): Priebus has the most direct path to the chairmanship and the best story to tell about his performance in the 2010 election. (Wisconsin Republicans claimed the governorship, a U.S. Senate seat and two House seats.) He's also painted himself as a low-key steward of the committee, a sort of antidote for those members who have tired of Steele's schtick. One potential problem for Priebus: There are still lots of undecided voters -- 73 -- and volatility is never a good thing for the frontrunner. Priebus will need a strong showing at the members-only candidate forum tomorrow to win over undecideds.

* Michael Steele (17 public commitments): It's one and done for Steele. His high point will be on the first ballot and the only real story will be where his support goes once that first vote is over. One other Steele-related wrinkle to keep an eye on: How long does he stay in the contest once it becomes clear he can't win a second term? There is no rule that he must drop out -- ever -- so Steele could make it uncomfortable for everyone involved by staying in to the bitter end even though it's been clear for multiple ballots that he has no chance. He also could deliver remarks -- or an endorsement -- at any point in the multiple ballot process that could swing the proceedings in wildly variant directions.

* Saul Anuzis (14 public commitments): Anuzis is the only candidate other than Steele who has run for this office before and, as a member of the committee, may have a leg up with those who will be free-agents after the first ballot. Anuzis did get a nice boost recently when the state party chairs of Iowa and South Carolina -- two critical states in the presidential nominating contest -- backed his candidacy.

* Ann Wagner (14 public commitments): Wagner's case is a potentially strong one -- she is an expert fundraiser who is a former member of the RNC. The committee would clearly prefer one of its own to lead it, and there is widespread acknowledgement that the $20 million debt it carries after the 2010 election is the biggest problem the next chairman (or woman) must solve. Wagner felt like the momentum candidate 10 days ago but hasn't seen a considerable uptick in public commitments in recent days.

* Maria Cino (12 public commitments): After struggling mightily to secure even a handful of commitments in the early days of the contest, Cino has picked up steam of late -- boosted by House Speaker John Boehner's advocacy on her behalf. Her allies note that she is essentially in a dead heat with Anuzis and Wagner in terms of public commitments and insist that her second and third ballot strength suggests she could win a war of attrition.

By Chris Cillizza  | January 12, 2011; 2:30 PM ET
Categories:  Republican Party  
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