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Posted at 2:34 PM ET, 01/ 3/2011

Steele: No 'alarm bells' at RNC

By Aaron Blake

Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele stood up to the criticism being lodged against him at Monday's RNC chairman debate, standing behind his record over the last two years as four opponents noted the committee's troubles.

Steele was more soft-spoken than he has been in the past, but the message was largely the same: I am who I am, and I'm satisfied with my record. He even named abolitionist Frederick Douglass as his hero and "War and Peace" as his favorite book, as the other candidates picked more traditional Republican answers (i.e. citing Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush and Abraham Lincoln).

Basically nobody took on Steele directly, but there were plenty of allusions to the party's financial straits during his time as chairman. After a few of his opponents began the debate by noting the "crisis" at the RNC -- specifically referring to the committee's reported $20 million in debt -- Steele said he didn't think that's the right word.

"I don't see the crisis as some may see it," he said, noting the gains the GOP made in 2010, during his tenure as chairman. "I don't see it as something where the alarm bells go off and you start" panicking.

Steele, in perhaps his strongest and most outspoken moment, defended his big-tent approach to the GOP, saying in front of the conservative party faithful that pushing centrists away from the party is the wrong message.

"We cannot be a party that sits back with a litmus test and excludes," Steele said at the debate, which was presented by the Daily Caller and Americans for Tax Reform. "That is not the Republican Party I joined at 17 years old, and it will not be the Republican Party I lead the next two years."

Steele also sounded a more inclusive note on social issues, saying that the party should support traditional marriage between one man and one woman, but "not to the exclusion of others, not to diminish anyone's individuality."

(The chairman previously earned some unwanted attention after he said that abortion was an "individual choice.")

The other candidates on the dais took very different tacks.

Former Michigan GOP Chairman Saul Anuzis urged the GOP to reach out to new constituencies, but he set a high standard for inclusion.

"If somebody's with us 80 percent of the time, then they're probably a Republican," Anuzis said, referring to President Reagan's famous axiom.

Wisconsin GOP Chairman Reince Priebus said that "if you're pro-abortion, pro-stimulus, pro-G.M. bailout, pro-AIG, well guess what, you might not be a Republican."

Priebus, the apparent frontrunner for the job at this time, largely kept his powder dry and declined to criticize the incumbent chairman in any direct -- or even glancing -- fashion.

"I'm not running against anybody," he said in his closing statement.

Former RNC co-chairwoman Ann Wagner wasn't as friendly, beginning her opening statement by saying the committee has lost credibility.

"It is time for tough love at the Republican National Committee," Wagner said.

A fifth candidate, former RNC official Maria Cino, largely emphasized her own credentials and the role of state parties. She earned big applause for decrying the GOP's role in passing the McCain-Feingold campaign finance bill last decade.

The candidates took their chance to criticize the RNC's current standing when a question was asked about the committee's 72-hour turnout program, which was a shell of its former self last year.

The other candidate's cited the committee's financial woes, saying that the 72-hour program wasn't fully funded and needs to be so in the future.

But Steele said the program was misunderstood, saying it was a "12-month program" rather than a 72-hour one.

"It was not discontinued. I just wasn't put out in a way that people are used to seeing it," Steele said, saying it relied on phone calls by volunteers throughout the country rather than on flying in those volunteers and having them work from Washington. "The idea that we didn't fully fund it is really kind of a misnomer, because we did."

By Aaron Blake  | January 3, 2011; 2:34 PM ET
Categories:  Republican Party  
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Next: The best (and the worst) of the RNC chair debate

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