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February Fundraising Boosts Steele

Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele appears to have bought himself at least a modicum of breathing room from his critics for the time being, thanks in part to his decision to essentially drop out of the public spotlight and to a poor showing by the Democratic National Committee in the February fundraising race, Republicans said.

In the first full month under Steele’s watch, the RNC raised $5.1 million, which is $2 million short of the mark set by former RNC Chairman Mike Duncan in February 2007, his first full month on the job, several Republicans pointed out. But with the DNC — which should be reaping the financial benefits from a newly minted president with high approval ratings — reporting a haul of only $3.2 million in February, Steele’s performance has been seen as positive by many in the GOP.

Steele has also begun to fill top RNC staff positions, with several high-level hires coming over the past 10 days, including Monday’s announcement that former Microsoft executive Todd Herman was joining the RNC as media director. After Steele essentially cleaned house at the RNC after being elected in late January, the hires have helped to calm the nerves of many Republican insiders.

“I think the successful fundraising month combined with the announcement of some key senior staff positions being filled probably helped quiet the noise a little,— a GOP strategist on Capitol Hill said. A second Republican strategist agreed that Steele has bought himself some time, and that for now, at least, the calls for his resignation will likely die down.

But this strategist said Steele needs to act quickly to capitalize on the respite from internal criticism to undo some of the residual damage from his first few weeks on the job.

After gaining the chairmanship, Steele made a series of public appearances and interviews that thrust the new RNC leader into the spotlight and then immediately knocked him on his heels. In quick succession, Steele appeared to pick a fight with conservative radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh, party moderates such as Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.) who are up for re-election this cycle, and the GOP’s Christian conservative base over abortion.

Steele’s high-profile missteps prompted increasingly angry internal grumblings among Republicans, who saw the new RNC leader as using the position to promote himself rather than repair the GOP brand.

“His job is to promote the Republican message, not Mike Steele,— one Republican said.

But beyond the public gaffes and controversies, Steele’s decision to essentially gut the RNC’s existing infrastructure and call for wholesale change caused significant heartburn for many Republicans who see the RNC as the party’s primary avenue for challenging President Barack Obama’s bully pulpit.

Calling Steele’s status “fragile,— the strategist argued that the research, fundraising and communication shops at the RNC need to be fully staffed and up and running as soon as possible, and that Steele needs to continue to keep himself out of the news for the time being.

“I think it’s imperative that he get a staff in place as soon as possible, and stay disciplined and stay off the air for a while,— this source said.

Curt Anderson, a Steele adviser, said the chairman has remained focused on fundraising during the transition and that the RNC is going through a needed set of changes in how the committee operates.

“Chairman Steele is working very well with the Republican leaders in Congress and in state capitols around the country,— Anderson said. “Our transition process is historic and much-needed. During this transition, the chairman has remained focused on the fundraising tasks, and the numbers reflect that.—

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