WASHINGTON — Kentucky native and Republican National Committee chairman Mike Duncan is in the crosshairs as various segments of the GOP mount a campaign to give a party still reeling from presidential and congressional election losses an image makeover.
Duncan, a man who some fellow Kentucky Republicans call "Mr. Inside," is closely allied with President Bush. It is that connection, coupled with the push to distance the party from an unpopular administration, that has turned the race for the RNC chairmanship into a symbolic fight over the ideological soul of the GOP.
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Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has emerged from the fray as a voice of change, promising to get the GOP back on track. Supporters are pushing him as a possible replacement for Duncan.
"The Republican National Committee has to ask itself if it wants someone who has successfully led a revolution," Randy Evans, Gingrich's friend and legal counsel, told several media outlets earlier this week. "If it does, Newt's the one."
Former Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, Michigan Republican Party Chairman Saul Anuzis and Republican leaders from Florida, Mississippi and South Carolina are also gunning for the post.
While Duncan has not officially made a bid for the chairmanship and Gingrich says he is uninterested in the post, supporters are nonetheless lobbying on their behalf. Members will vote on a new chairman in January.
In the meantime, both Duncan and Gingrich are making the rounds, discussing the state of the party with anyone who will listen.
Their differing approaches are stark.
"The Republican Party, right now, is like a mid-sized college team trying to play in the Super Bowl," Gingrich said in an interview Friday. "We have to be honest about our shortcomings as a governing party. ... You have to see the 2006 and 2008 losses together and recognize that the Republican Party has a performance failure and the American people, who have not changed ideologically, are sending a message that they want a performance change."
Duncan was more nuanced during an interview last week with MSNBC's Andrea Mitchell, attributing losses to "the national mood" but saying that the nation is still center-right and the fundamental principles of the nation remain unchanged.
"Chairman Duncan understands that we took a defeat," RNC spokesman Chris Taylor said of the party's Nov. 4 losses. "In no way do I believe the Republican Party is dead. Right now the Republican Party is taking stock of where it is."
The battle over the Republican leadership reflects profound problems within the party, said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. The GOP, he said, needs to find leadership that better reflects the nation's changing demographics.
"They lost badly for the second election in a row," Sabato said. "Historically, two things happen when a party loses badly. There's a long period of introspection where the leaders ask 'What did we do wrong?' and 'Can we change?' Second there's a search for new leaders that can generate change for an election win."
Duncan, from Inez in Martin County, is a close friend of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. As an administrator, Duncan has worked diligently to raise funds, plot strategy and help elect Sen. Jim Bunning, Gov. Ernie Fletcher and every Republican president since Richard Nixon to office. However, his name doesn't create the kind of buzz that some of his immediate predecessors — and even the party's general chairman, Florida Sen. Mel Martinez — seem to generate.
Some party insiders argue that, as the party grapples to redefine itself, the RNC chairmanship has taken on greater importance. The party, they say, now needs a leader with a little more dazzle.
Though the RNC chairmanship will take on heightened prominence, a true "new voice" of the party may not emerge until the next presidential election, Sabato said. The party chairmen have some power, but so do the often much more popular and visible governors who may well fight the congressional leadership for control over the party's direction.
"There is no head of the Republican Party," Sabato said. "What you have is a lot of people speaking for the party."