Just got back from the Capitol Hilton and, after five hours of heavy schmoozing with attendees at the Republican National Committee's winter meeting, I can say with a high degree of certainty that anyone who tells you they know the outcome of the RNC chairman's vote is lying.
As to Chris Cillizza's claim that Katon Dawson's got the mojo -- didn't see it. Maybe the Dawson faction is playing possum, but if the South Carolinian is a "force to be reckoned with," it's a stealth momentum so hush-hush as to be undetectable to an outsider.
The most common opinion is that we can expect five or six ballots. The best-connected source I've got says to expect incumbent RNC Chairman Mike Duncan to come in at 55 votes on the first ballot and "erode" thereafter. Given that 55 votes is less than a third of the 168 RNC votes -- and now that Chip Saltsman has pulled out -- that would leave 113 votes to be divided among four candidates: Dawson, Michigan GOP chairman Saul Anuzis, former Maryland Lt. Governor Michael Steele and former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell. Any of those candidates who's got 30 or more votes on the first ballot is in the game; any who comes in under 20 votes on the first ballot could be doomed.
Talk to a lot of Republicans about Duncan, and what you're liable to hear is, "Nothing against Mike personally, but . . ." The devastating losses of the past couple of years may not be Duncan's fault, but he was the guy at the helm when the ship hit the rocks, and there seems to be a strong consensus for . . . well, Change. That's not to say that he can't pull it out, but you'd have to count it as an upset if he were re-elected.
OK, then, what about Anuzis? He's the Energizer bunny in this thing. When you walked into the Capitol Hilton lobby Thursday night, you couldn't avoid the Anuzis activists, who had a station set up at the lobby bar, with activists/volunteers in blue T-shirts handing out stickers with the motto, "The Comeback Starts Now." Anuzis himself was not in the lobby -- doubtless he was buttonholing voting members one-on-one somewhere -- nor did I see him in his 10th-floor hospitality suite. His sister, Gailute Anuzis-Dedinas, was in the suite, and she talked to me a while. Is Anuzis truly "everybody's second choice," as one of his supporters told me two weeks ago? Hard to tell. One state party chairman I talked to said he expects Anuzis to finish fourth, but that might reflect a grudge. If energy, online organizing and solid support among Lithuanian-Americans counts for anything, Anuzis has got a chance.
Michael Steele has been hit hard by accusations of moderation. (In what Ralph Z. Hallow called the dirtiest RNC chairman's race ever, you know things are getting ugly when nasty slurs like "moderate" are thrown around so casually.) I talked to Steele in his hospitality suite, and he characterized his support as broad-based and geographically diverse, but his trump card may be his strong backing among blue-state Republicans. Two state party chairmen told me they like Steele's chances -- but anything you hear at an RNC meeting has to be taken with a grain of salt, because everybody's got an ulterior motive.
The consensus favorite among movement conservative leaders is Blackwell. He doesn't have the high-tech vibe of Anuzis or the Fox News cachet of Steele, but Blackwell is widely respected. One of his Ohio supporters vouched for Blackwell's prowess as a fund-raiser, noting that he raised $10 million for his 2006 gubernatorial bid. Given his numerous endorsements from prominent conservatives, Blackwell would be the smart-money bet in this race -- except you'd have to be crazy to wager on such a wide-open contest.
As I was leaving the Capital Hilton after midnight, I encountered a friend who asked me if I'd be back for the vote, scheduled to begin at 10:30 a.m. "Well," I said, looking at my watch. "I don't know. Ten-thirty's going to come might early . . ." To which my friend replied: "Ah, don't sweat it. They're going to be voting a long time. Noon will be plenty soon enough."
And that's about the only safe bet we've got.
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