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Family Feud: The Fight for RNC Chairman

by Stuart Rothenberg

People on Main Street don't know about it, most Democrats are ignoring it, and many reporters aren't following it as closely as they should, but the GOP is in the middle of an election that could have far-reaching ramifications.

Later this month, the members of the Republican National Committee will select their party chairman, and more than a handful of candidates are traveling the country and working the phones to line up support among the national committeemen and national committeewomen who will select a successor to Haley Barbour.

The top tier of hopefuls for national chairman includes former New Hampshire governor Steve Merrill, New Jersey national committeeman David Norcross, Colorado national committeeman Jim Nicholson, and, possibly, Texas state chairman Tom Pauken.

The winner, however, will ultimately need to draw support from second-tier candidates who will ultimately drop from the race and try to influence the outcome. Those other candidates includes California state chairman Michael Herrington, Ohio state chairman Bob Bennett (who has spent a lot of money but has relatively little to show from it), ex-RNC co-chair Jeannie Austin, and Michigan national committeeman Chuck Yob.

Supporters of the major contenders generally agree that communication skills (especially on TV), fund raising ability, management experience and organizational skills are all important considerations in the selection.

Insiders seem to think Merrill and Norcross are out front now. Merrill has the backing of many former Dole presidential campaign staffers, while Norcross, a veteran GOP activist who serves as the RNC's general counsel and once, like outgoing chairman Barbour, ran unsuccessfully for the Senate, has a core of support from the Northeast and from moderates.

Nicholson, a conservative with a core of support in the West, and Merrill are widely viewed as acceptable to party conservatives, but Texan Pauken is the favorite of social issue conservatives and populist conservatives. Savvy party insiders argue that Pauken, who has been endorsed by the Manchester Union-Leader, isn't among the top three contestants, and some RNC insiders wonder whether Nicholson doesn't suffer from a stature gap.

The race hasn't been ideological, and personal relationships and geography usually are more important in these kinds of contests. But ideology could become more of a factor in the race if Norcross is at or near the front of the pack as the balloting nears, since the New Jersey Republican is the only one of the top tier hopefuls who is pro-choice. With Merrill, Nicholson and Pauken all to Norcross's right, it could be difficult for Norcross to win the votes of supporters of the other candidates who eventually drop out of the race.

On the other hand, national committee members traditionally prefer to vote for one of their own. Four years ago, they selected Barbour over Michigan state chairman Spencer Abraham and outgoing Missouri governor John Ashcroft, even though conservative activists seemed to prefer Abraham or Ashcroft. That bodes well for Norcross and Nicholson. Merrill supporters argue, however, that Barbour's success (and the need to repeat it) has increased the importance of skills, rather than long-time contact with committee members. But everone agrees that running for national chairman is a little like running for school president, and the fact of the matter is that Merrill hasn't been a "member" of that "school," the way Barbour, Norcross and Nicholson have been.

A victory by Norcross, however, could add to the gnawing of teeth by conservatives, who would not only be displeased with the party's chairman but who would complain about him and his priorities for four years. Norcross's election undoubtedly would produce calls from the Buchanan wing of the GOP for the creation of a new conservative party. At the same time, Norcross's election could soothe moderates, Independents and women. It isn't entirely clear whether Norcross's position on abortion makes his election all-but-impossible.

The problem in picking a successor to Barbour is compounded by Bob Dole's defeat in November. Barbour proved to be an energetic party spokesman, and the next RNC chairman will be expected to perform the same role. Nobody in the current field matches Barbour's skills and experience on all fronts, leaving the committee members with an unenviable task. Nobody knows whether they will pick a national party chairman who unites, excites or simply is the least objectionable.

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Spotlight 1996

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