WASHINGTON — There was a time when GOP operatives called Republican National Committee Chairman Mike Duncan "Mr. Inside" and meant it as a compliment.
After all, the Kentucky native's reputation as a behind-the-scenes workhorse with deep ties to the GOP's kingmakers helped him rise to the party's top leadership ranks. Now, with the party in disarray after weathering two cycles of bruising election-year losses, Duncan finds himself struggling to keep his position.
"In the beginning people were looking for superman," Duncan, 57, said of his tenure as chairman. "Some people who were looking for one person to come in and be the face of the party were disappointed. We need many faces and many voices. The RNC chairman cannot be the only spokesman for the party."
As the party regroups, the RNC chairmanship will take on heightened prominence. The race boasts a prominent slate of challengers including former Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, Michigan Republican Party Chairman Saul Anuzis, South Carolina Republican Party Chairman Katon Dawson and former Tennessee chairman Chip Saltsman, who gave members a copy of a CD that includes a song called "Barack the Magic Negro" during the holidays. Duncan said that he was "appalled" by the song.
The candidates will face off on Jan. 28 when the 168 Republican National Committee members elect their new chairman. Though the candidates represent varied segments of the party, they're nearly united in their questioning of Duncan's RNC leadership.
"If you were a ship trying to see the Republican message you couldn't see it in the fog," said Florida GOP chairman Jim Greer, who's also considering running for the national post. "Duncan has served the party as a manager with great distinction. But there is a difference between an effective manager and an effective leader. We need a leader."
Duncan is in an awkward position as his party's leaders seek to further distance themselves from President George W. Bush's policies on the economy and the Iraq war and the surging national debt.
For more than two decades, Duncan has quietly worked behind the scenes to help raise funds and elect Kentucky Republicans and every Republican president since Richard Nixon. Under Duncan's leadership, the party raised more than $400 million during the past two years.
Yet it's those very connections to the old Republican guard that have made Duncan a target. Critics say Duncan represents the GOP status quo at a time when the base is demanding change. Duncan and his opponents look toward the 2010 U.S. Census and congressional redistricting as a prime opportunity to boost the party's leadership ranks with lawmakers who represent a cross-section of ideological views and ethnic groups.
"The elections of 2006 and 2008 have required many to take a hard look and change their views," Greer said. "In Florida we kind of get it. We're very diverse in our population. The makeup of the citizens of Florida requires an inclusive message."
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