Republicans warn Steele against fumbling speech to party faithful

NEW ORLEANS -- The public opinion trial of Michael Steele will hold a vital public hearing Saturday, when the embattled Republican National Committee (RNC) chairman takes to the stage in front of an antsy party faithful.

Steele will begin the process of rebuilding his name when he speaks to the Southern Republican Leadership Conference in the afternoon. And he has plenty to prove.


Two RNC members have now come out asking for Steele to resign, and other key figures are expressing hesitation. A letter supporting Steele was signed by 31 state GOP chairmen Friday, but that leaves another 20 who aren’t on board yet. (The totals include the District of Columbia party chairman.)

Republicans say Steele needs to get back to basics and reassure supporters about his stewardship. Mostly, though, they say the distractions need to stop.

Former Rep. J.C. Watts (R-Okla.), another prominent black Republican who addressed the conference Thursday, told The Hill that the committee seems to be out of sync. The former University of Oklahoma football star said Steele’s speech should focus on “blocking and tackling.”

“We’re over a year into his chairmanship, and we shouldn’t be still going through some of the things we’re going through,” Watts said. “I think I’d take a step back, take a deep breath and say, ‘I’m going to get back to basics.’”

Texas Gov. Rick Perry echoed Watts’s thoughts almost verbatim, football analogies and all.

“Get back to the basics; be as disciplined and focused as you can be,” Perry said. “It’s kind of like playing football. Don’t make any mistakes.

“Don’t pass. There’s only three things that can happen when you pass, and two of them are bad.”

Family Research Council President Tony Perkins, who has called for social conservatives to stop donating to the RNC, said there’s nothing Steele can say that will change his mind.

“I don’t see how they are able to have a radical change in orientation to regain the support of social conservatives,” Perkins said.

Lousiana GOP Chairman Roger Villere told the Washington Post that RNC members would be huddling to address how to go forward, and he said they would like assurances from Steele.

Villere, who is running for lieutenant governor, has not signed the letter of support for Steele.

"I don't think there's any momentum to” force him out, Villere told the Post. “But there's a lot of concerns, and we want to meet with him to address our concerns."

Thus far, the RNC scandal has been largely taboo on the main stage at the Hilton Riverside, with delegates and reporters talking about it behind the scenes but almost no mention of it in front of the big crowd.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal did take some of the tension out of the room Friday by making light of the RNC’s troubles. He joked in his speech that RNC staffers should stay away from some of the more risqué sections of this city’s nightlife.

"A word of warning to RNC staffers: You may want to avoid Bourbon Street,” Jindal said. “Just some advice."

That all changes Saturday. With Sarah Palin having spoken Friday and the retirements of Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) and Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens now a day old, Steele is the big-ticket item for the final day of the conference.

In his Saturday speaking slot, Steele will follow Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), Rep Ron Paul (R-Texas) and Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who will address the crowd via video. Without a headliner like Palin or an in-person appearance from Pawlenty, that setup should provide Steele with a solid platform to get across his message.

Steele, whose public appearances have frequently ended in some kind of controversy, will be closely scrutinized by supporters and the media.

Perkins said he is skeptical that Steele will level with the party faithful. He said the committee has shown no remorse for what it has done wrong, including the recent hiring of prominent lawyer Ted Olson, who is working to overturn the ban on same-sex marriage in California.

Perkins said the RNC has shown a “total lack of sensitivity” and that its continued fast spending is evidence of that.

“I do know there is a large percentage of RNC support,” Perkins said, “that is concerned about the fact that they’re wasting money.”

But Steele can also claim a backdrop of support. In addition to the 31 state GOP chairmen who signed the letter supporting him, even some critics of what has gone on at the RNC are laying the lion’s share of the blame at the feet of Steele’s GOP opponents.

Watts said Steele has given those opponents something to work with, but that his sins aren’t all that grand.

“I think Michael’s obviously given his enemies ammunition, but at the same time, the things that they're shooting at him on, I’m scratching my head over,” Watts said. “You have to recognize that when you dislodge a chairman, you’re dislodging an entire constituency. Let’s not kid ourselves to think that some of that’s not going on as well.”