Judge Michael Steele by These Criteria

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The main subtext at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans is the question about whether Michael Steele needs to get his butt out of town. The SRLCers include at least half of the Republican National Committee. Here's what they're asking each other:

(1) Is Steele going to leave any seats on the table? This means: the RNC usually transfers a significant amount of money to the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee in the fall. This money has one main purpose: it allows both committees to expand the number of seats in play. With control of the House at stake, a few million dollars from the RNC could make the difference in marginal raises. Right now, the RNC has about $11 million cash on hand. By the fall, Steele will need to have about $30 million or so to satisfy expectations and to run a competent ground game...

(2) The ground game. A good ground game -- identifying, targeting and persuading voters -- can add between 3 and 7 percentage points to a margin of victory. The RNC usually coordinates the field operation in Congressional elections. This year, the committees are working more directly with the state parties; the state parties are relying more on off-the-shelf information for their own targeting; Steele has cut the RNC's political budget, and it's not clear whether the RNC will be able to mount the type of operation that has earned it the "vaunted" adjective in the past. Still, the party has a lot of faith in RNC political director Gentry Collins, and his presentations to donors and RNC members have been impressive.

(3) Redistricting. The RNC plays a critical and fairly unseen role in redistricting. They provide Republicans, in states, with the sophisticated data sets needed to most favorably draw district boundaries. Insiders worry that the RNC isn't ready to do this, and that Republicans will have to go elsewhere for advice. A second component here: the RNC doesn't seem to have a grand redistricting strategy; the Democrats do. A third component: the RNC doesn't seem to have a budget to handle the various legal challenges that redistricting ultimately draws.

So forget about lesbian bondage scandals for now -- pay attention to what matters, politically.

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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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