A Lip-Biting Debate as Steele Faces His Critics

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There's something inherently odd about a public, televised debate between candidates vying for a post only 168 people get to vote for, and whose votes are won based on old-school, closed-door politicking far from the panel room. So while the Republican National Committee Chairman debate Monday provided a window into the sort of presence each of the four candidates challenging embattled incumbent chair Michael Steele would have if given the committee's podium, it did little to clarify the contours of a race in which all on stage promised allegiance to the party's conservative social platform and improved fundraising and administration in the two years ahead.

Michael Steele fidgeted his way through the debate, a study in discomfort as his record of financial management -- in particular, his handling of the GOP's once vaunted 72-hour turn-out program this cycle -- was raked over the coals and the very presence of four challengers spoke to intraparty dissatisfaction with him.

He looked down. He looked up. He covered his mouth with his left hand, rested his head against both hands, bit his lip, looked to his left, rested his hand on his forehead, and gnawed again on his lower lip. Less than half an hour of the two-hour debate sponsored by The Daily Caller and Americans for Tax Reform, with co-sponsorship from the Susan B. Anthony List, had elapsed.

The opening statements were a litany of complaints against his leadership. "Ladies and gentlemen, it is time for some tough love at the Republican National Committee," said former ambassador Ann Wagner, adding that the RNC "is broken and it needs to be fixed."

"The Republican National Committee is at a moment of crisis," added Saul Anuzis, the former Michigan GOP official.

In the end, however, Steele proved that as a performer in the setting, he still had the sand to pull off a strong defense of his agenda. "My record stands for itself. We won," he said.

"Find me the state that didn't have a winning election and maybe their program wasn't funded. I think we won in all 50 states this year," he added. "And that's the goal." How the others did:

Reince Priebus: Even as he promised to improve the RNC's fundraising, administration and Republican "unity," the former Steele ally showed he has the potential to step into as many minefields as the man he would replace. He said everything right for the audience he was seeking to woo, but the reception he received among tweeters following the #rncdebate was vicious and some of his statements seemed guaranteed to turn off party moderates as he promised to hold elected officials accountable from the RNC's chair for hewing to conservative principles.

"I'm not running against anyone," he said in his concluding remarks, sounding a conciliatory note and saying he hoped to be a "workhorse," put on a great convention and unite the Tea Party and other factions of the party.

"We are not in competition with the conservative movement, we are part of the conservative movement," he said.

Saul Anuzis: The former Michigan GOP chair promised more of a big tent party and pointed to his track record of administrative success at every level of his state party. "I think we need someone who can make the trains run on time," he said. He also emphasized that the RNC members should elect one of their own, and that he understood the members as one who had worked his own way up through the ranks.

Ann Wagner: An amusing presence who cracked up the crowd after she misheard a question about her favorite book for one about her favorite bar -- and answered it -- Wagner seemed to be still introducing herself even in her concluding remarks, suggesting she'll have an uphill climb over the less than two weeks before the vote at the RNC's Winter Meeting as she reaches out to committee members. She made sure to refer listeners to her plan at AnnWagner.com. She also won the how many guns do you have in your home contest, listing between herself, her husband and her in the Armed Forces son a grand total of 16. (Anuzis had four, while Priebus said he had five. Neither Cino nor Steele keep guns in the house, they said.)

Maria Cino: Cino laid out the most concrete plans but had the least stage presence. She proposed that the RNC budget run on a two year cycle that matched the election cycle and pointed to her 18-month state victory plan. The former deputy chairman of the RNC said she was "uniquely qualified" to be chairman of the RNC "because I have done this job before."

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Garance Franke-Ruta is a former senior editor covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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