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Republicans attempt to recruit alternative to Michael Steele



Can Michael Steele withstand a challenge in the RNC race? AP Photo

There is an effort underway among prominent Republican National Committee members to recruit a serious alternative to Chairman Michael Steele if and when he decides to stand for a second term early next year, according to sources familiar with the conversations.

Henry Barbour, the nephew of Gov. Haley Barbour and a committeeman from Mississippi, has approached Reince Priebus, who served as the chairman of Steele's first run for chairman in 2009, about the possibility of challenging the incumbent early next year.

As chairman of the Wisconsin Republican Party, Priebus helped the GOP win the governorship, a Senate seat, two U.S. House seats and seize control of both the state House and Senate last Tuesday.

Priebus remains undecided on a challenge to Steele and those close to him insist he is not actively organizing for such a bid.

Whether it's Priebus or someone else, there is broad agreement within the ranks of the RNC that Steele is very likely to run for a second term and very likely to be seriously challenged for that post.

While Steele has been much maligned for the committee's fundraising problems and his tendency to veer off message in public appearances, even his most ardent opponents acknowledge that he is held in higher regard by the 168 RNC members than he is by the general GOP political class.

(And don't forget that Steele almost certainly endeared himself to any number of the committee members he met with during his 48-state "Fire Pelosi" bus trip that spanned the final month of the campaign.)

Estimates of Steele's strength within the committee vary but there is a general consensus that he has between 50 to 60 solid votes. He would need 85 votes to win. (Steele beat South Carolina Party Chairman Katon Dawson 91 to 77 in the 2009 vote.)

Steele allies argue that the bus tour coupled with the party's gains at the ballot box have strengthened his hand and the fact that no serious alternative has yet emerged is also working to his advantage.

If Priebus decides not to take Steele on -- or maybe even if he does -- there are any number of other names mentioned as possible candidates.

Among them: former Republican National Committee chairman Mike Duncan, who lost his bid for a second term to Steele in 2009, Connecticut Republican Party Chairman Chris Healy, California committeeman Ron Nehring and former Nevada governor Robert List.

Former Minnesota senator Norm Coleman, whose name was floated as a possible chairman, will not challenge Steele directly but would be interested in serving if there was interest within the committee, according to a source familiar with his thinking.

(Sources familiar with the inner workings of the RNC insist that the committee members want one of their own and that there is no chance that Coleman will be drafted.)

There's little question that Steele still stands on very treacherous political ground. There is a belief among the professional political class that he simply cannot remain on in the job as the party prepares to take on President Obama in 2012.

And yet, without a credible alternative there remains a possibility that Steele could win. A Priebus candidacy could change that calculus but as long as there is no one standing against Steele, he remains the frontrunner.

By Chris Cillizza  | November 9, 2010; 12:19 PM ET
Categories:  Republican Party  
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