Michael Steele defends time as RNC chairman

Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele defended his controversial tenure as head of the Republican Party in his opening statement at Monday's candidate debate.

The embattled chairman, who is running for a second term, said he doesn't "see the crisis."

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"I'm a glass-half-full kind of guy," Steele said. "I don't see the crisis as some may see it. I don't see it as something where alarm bells are going off and you start throwing and remaking and blowing up."

Most of Steele's criticism comes from financial decisions made under his tenure, and that was one of the first line of attacks his opponents used.

Former Missouri Republican Party Chairwoman Ann Wagner was the first to call out Steele on his money management.

"It is broken and needs to be fixed," Wagner said of the committee's financial status. "I think it's time for real change."

But Steele argued the party's prospects have dramatically improved, citing Republican victories in gubernatorial races in New Jersey and Virginia in 2009 and in special elections in Massachusetts and Hawaii in 2010.

The committee's financial picture, however, remains grim — news broke Sunday that the RNC begins the 2012 election cycle more than $20 million in debt.

Only a small portion of the 168 voting RNC members were on hand for Monday's debate at the National Press Club, which is being broadcast on C-SPAN and online. They were outnumbered in the audience by journalists, who helped swell the crowd to standing room-only.

Steele faces Saul Anuzis, former chairman of the Michigan GOP; Wisconsin Republican Reince Priebus; Wagner; and Maria Cino, a former Bush administration official.

Gentry Collins, a former RNC official, dropped his bid ahead of Monday's debate.

RNC members will vote for their next chairman on Jan. 14.

—This post was updated at 2:01 p.m.