Fundraising worries dominate the race for chairman of the RNC

Republicans' worries about fundraising, ahead of what is expected to be a billion-dollar presidential election, dominated the debate over who should be the party's next chairman.

Reports that the Republican National Committee is starting the 2012 presidential cycle more than $20 million in debt has worried members, particularly given President Obama's fundraising prowess.

The party will need to have some serious money in the bank to challenge the president, defend its control of the House and attempt to win control of the Senate.

The RNC will also be watching the redistricting process, where several red states are gaining House seats and several blue states are losing them.

At Monday's debate at the National Press Club, all five candidates focused on fundraising, particularly as incumbent Chairman Michael Steele has come under fire for several financial decisions made during his tenure.

Steele's challengers were quick to point to the committee's debt burden.

"We had historic victories, absolutely,” said former Missouri Republican Party Chairwoman Ann Wagner. But the RNC wasn’t “really a big player in those victories … because the RNC was not fully funded to the extent that it should be.”

"It is broken and needs to be fixed,” she said. “We have to get out and restore our major donor programs.”

But Steele argued he raised the money he was asked to raise and that his ability to bring in those millions of dollars is a reason he should keep his job. He also noted the party's winning record in the 2009 and 2010 elections.

“My record stands for itself. We won,” Steele said.

“I was asked to win elections. I was asked to raise money — $192 million over the last two years. We won. The fact that we’re here right now celebrating that win, I think, says a lot about the record," he said to applause.

Saul Anuzis, former chairman of the Michigan Republican Party, also made the RNC’s management a point of attack against Steele.

“This election is going to be about who can make the trains run on time; who can raise the money to win elections,” he said. “I think that’s my strength and that’s why I’m qualified to take the party forward.”

Steele’s has been given long odds to keep his job for a second term. But on Monday he gave a measured performance, frequently pointing to his hard-won experience over the last two years.

“At the end of day you don’t get to dictate the terms to the Speaker of the House, you don’t get to dictate the terms to the minority leader in the Senate,” he said. “You have to carry that message to them and you have to bring that message from them and if you get it wrong, you’ll be reminded: you don’t do policy.”

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

Wisconsin Republican Party Chairman Reince Priebus, who is considered the front-runner in the race, gave a more subdued performance and didn't criticize Steele directly.

He did argue to bring Tea Party activists into the party fold. “All of these groups will have a seat at the table when I’m chairman of the Republican National Committee,” he said.

“We’re not in competition with the movement, we’re part of it,” Priebus added. “We need unity, we need to be working together.”

Maria Cino, a former Bush administration official, echoed the remarks of her fellow challengers. “Our job is to grow the party from the bottom up,” she said. 

Steele, the RNC’s first African-American chairman, said he doesn't "see the crisis” critics claim happened under his management.

"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."

RNC members will vote Jan. 14 on a new chairman.