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 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.
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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 are 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 is 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, from Inez in Martin County, 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 Sen. Jim Bunning, Gov. Ernie Fletcher and every Republican president since Richard Nixon.
During the 2008 election cycle, Duncan was behind a sweeping strategy to micro-target potential voters, cross-reference consumer data and send that information via BlackBerry to grass-roots organizers as they canvassed neighborhoods for votes — all in a matter of seconds. The effort included technology first tested during Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal's successful historic bid to become the first Indian American to win a governorship.
Under Duncan's leadership, the party raised more than $400 million over the past two years and identified more than 200,000 potential votes that ultimately helped Georgia Sen. Saxby Chambliss pull ahead of Democratic challenger Jim Martin in that state's hotly contested run-off election.
"I won't apologize for having been involved in Republican politics since I was old enough to vote," Duncan said.
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. Both 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."
The battle for the RNC chairmanship reflects the party's deeper ideological problems, said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. Republicans, he said, need to find leadership that better reflects the nation's changing demographic.
"They lost badly for the second election in a row," Sabato said in November. "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."
Still, Duncan says he's best equipped to usher in a new era of Republican politics.
"I'm the candidate who can deliver significant change from day one and I understand the difference between when you have the White House and when you don't," Duncan said.