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Posted at 3:35 PM ET, 01/ 3/2011

The best (and the worst) of the RNC chair debate

By Chris Cillizza

Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele

The first debate in the Republican National Committee chair race is now in the books, a largely low key affair that featured few of the sharp elbows that many had expected in what has become an increasingly contentious fight.

(Make sure to check out Fix Aaron's report from the scene.)

Although it's hard to imagine that today's debate swayed the Jan. 14 vote in any meaningful way, there were some good -- and some bad -- performances.

Check out our rankings -- from best to worst -- after the jump.

Michael Steele: No, we still don't think Steele can win a second term. But, there was little question that he was the best communicator on the stage today. Steele began unsteadily and downcast but warmed as the 90-minute debate wore on. He was the only candidate to repeatedly draw spontaneous applause from the crowd and did the best he could to defend what has been, by any description, a rocky tenure at the RNC."My record stands for itself," said Steele. "We won." While Steele's abilities as a communicator were on display during the debate, so too was his tendency to make unforced errors. Asked what his favorite book was, Steele replied "War and Peace" by Leo Tolstoy, adding: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times". That line is, of course, from "A Tale of Two Cities" by Charles Dickens. A major error? Nope. But indicative of Steele's inability to contain himself when it comes to his own rhetorical stylings.

Ann Wagner: The former ambassador was the only person willing to directly confront Steele's controversial tenure -- although even she didn't call out the current chairman by name. "It is time for some tough love at the Republican National Committee," Wagner said in her opening remarks. Unfortunately for Wagner, that line may have been the high point of her performance in the debate. But, she did make clear to those people -- and they are multitude -- who won't vote for Steele that she knows what went wrong and how to fix it.

Saul Anuzis: Anuzis is the ultimate nice-guy -- playing well with the other candidates and focusing almost exclusively on his jack-of-all-trades abilities to make the case for the chairmanship. While Anuzis had few memorable lines, he did show his understanding of how the 168 committee members think in his closing statement; "I am a member [of the RNC] who believes we should be a member organization," he said. That sentiment is music to the ears to the 168 who have long felt as though they have been forced to accept chairmen foisted upon them by the GOP establishment in Washington.

Reince Priebus: Priebus' pitch to RNC members is that he is not Michael Steele. And, he proved that -- and then some -- during the debate. Priebus was incredibly low-key, rarely stepping away from talking points about his successes in Wisconsin in uniting the tea party and the establishment wings of the GOP. Priebus, who has by far the most public commitments in the race, was clearly acting the role of frontrunner. He took few risks and avoiding ANY direct criticism of Steele -- a strategy likely aimed at winning Steele supporters once (and if) he drops off the ticket.

Maria Cino: Cino was not bad but she wasn't particularly good either. And, for the candidate with the lowest number of public supporters in the field, she likely needed to make a stronger -- and more positive -- impression with the 168. Cino is, without question, the best tactician of the candidates but is that the sort of person the RNC members want at the head of the committee? Cino, time and again, made the argument about how well she knew the building and how she could run it efficiently. But, at a time when the establishment is on the outs, identifying yourself as the candidate of that wing of the party may not be the best approach.

By Chris Cillizza  | January 3, 2011; 3:35 PM ET
Categories:  Republican Party  
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