The five candidates vying to chair the Republican National Committee faced off Monday at the National Press Club in a debate sponsored by Tucker Carlson’s Daily Caller website, Grover Norquist’s American Tax Reform and the Susan B. Anthony List, the previously non-partisan pro-life outfit that famously turned against some of its previous allies, pro-life Democrats in the U.S. House who voted for President Obama’s health care overhaul.

Here are a few thoughts and observations on this contest that came to mind to me up in the balcony above the packed Press Club room.

* The universe for this election is finite and particular, even peculiar: the 168 members of the Republican National Committee made up of a party chair, national committeeman and national committeewoman from the 50 states and six U.S. territories. One point of contention raised by incumbent RNC chair Michael Steele’s critics has been his (relative) lavishing of RNC resources on (and trips to visit) the territorial GOPs.  Steele enjoyed solid support from those delegations when he captured the chairmanship. (Steele’s payoff for this strategy has been mixed: He has support from the Virgin Islanders, a Guamanian and the DCGOP, but none of the Northern Marianas Islanders, whose Republican Party received $20,000 on his watch, have publicly declared for Steele.)

The candidates were clearly appealing to a larger audience than their immediate electorate. The RNC members spotted by myself and all seemed to be there in shows of support for the candidates they were already behind. (DC’s Republican chairman, Bob Kabel, a Steele backer, was sighted.) It’s doubtful a single undecided RNC member was swayed by this debate, so the candidates were more plausibly auditioning for the role with the media and the general public. They were no doubt trying to reassure conservative leaning journalists, but also to impress they political “industry press” (Roll Call, Politico, CQ, etc.) that they were politically savvy enough for the position.

* Here’s a race where David Broder-style hand wringing about too much “horse race” coverage and not enough “Talking About the Issues” is blissfully irrelevant. This election is all about strategy and who’s ahead with RNC members now and which ones can be persuaded if the vote takes multiple ballots to decided.
* The paring of the Susan B. Anthony List with Carlson’s Daily Caller and Norquist’s ATR is curious. The SBA List co-sponsored the event not just to make sure the candidates couldn’t duck taking a public pro-life stance. The List’s president, Marjorie Dannenfelser, announced that “my charge...I’m happy to say, is to represent social issues,” not just abortion.  
Dannensfelser asked a question on behalf of the National Organization for Marriage. While noting that the GOP base is overwhelmingly opposed to gay marriage, NOM’s question struck a populist stance indicating that social conservatives are ready for demographic Armageddon. NOM derided “Republican elites” who warn that opposing gay marriage will put the GOP “on the wrong side of history.” They are hoping against hope that the numbers will remain on their side after their kids go to college.
Back to why this Daily Caller, ATR “marriage” with the SBA List and NOM strikes observers as curious:  Both Carlson and Norquist have been known to criticize social conservatives’ rhetorical excess on gay marriage, for instance. The SBA List’s and NOM’s agendas just don’t always sit that comfortably in Norquist’s “Leave Us Alone Coalition” despite his awkward and unconvincing spin on it.
Social conservatism is unpopular even with the slice of younger voters who are more receptive to Republican, and even Tea Party-ism, free market and other small government rhetoric. For a forum that asked candidates to map out a 'winning' Republican strategy for the future, forcing the next RNC chair to publicly address questions like NOM’s makes the task of winning over future generations of voters an even more difficult task.
* How did the candidates address NOM’s question? Steele and Wisconsin Republican Party chair Reince Priebus voiced opposition to gay marriage tempered with “touchy-feely” rhetoric. Steele equivocated with: “while everyone has their own definition” of marriage... Priebus stated that “I don’t believe anyone should be denied dignity in this discussion” and urged that “everyone should be loved” in this debate, then pivoted to denounce unelected judges “rewriting the constitution” on this issue.

Missouri GOP veteran Ann Wagner managed to brag about the Republican takeover of Jeff City she helped engineer, and reminded that those GOP majorities have been able to thwart gay marriage in the Show Me State. GOP operative Maria Cino had the most concise talking point, but veteran Washington lefty journalist David Corn couldn’t help but chide her, tweeting that Cino, “the Cheney candidate, gives shortest answer to gay marriage question.”

* A question asking over which issue had the GOP most lost its way brought an applause line that wasn’t expected by everyone. It wasn’t going soft on social issues or taxing and spending, but the passage of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform cited by Cino that got the most heated response from the audience.

* In a sign of the times, or a sign of the Washington Times’ waning influence on the conservative movement and Republican politics, if the same question (Where do you get your news?) were asked in 1993’s contested RNC chair race that elected Haley Barbour, I bet most candidates would give an obligatory nod tp the Rev. Moon-founded, unapologetically conservative broadsheet, perhaps after making a trip up New York Ave., NE to meet with its editorial board. Interestingly, not one candidate mentioned the Washington Times this year.

Steele flubbed an attempt to appeal to instinctive Republican conservatism. With a folksy drawl, he claimed to be a “an old fashioned guy” who still likes his hard copy of...the Washington Post! Getting his news from an outlet considered by his audience to be a hostile source didn’t help Steele dig himself out of his hole.

* There is no Sun Belt conservative in the mode of South Carolina’s Katon Dawson, Steele’s strongest opponent in the last RNC race.

In the wake of the new census numbers showing population shifts South and West, moves that many strategists argue will favor the GOP in the next decade, four of the candidates hail from Rust Belt states that are losing relative population: Priebus from Wisconsin, Wagner from Missouri, Cino from Buffalo, NY and Michigan’s national committeeman Saul Anuzis.

Republicans made big gains in the Rust Belt in 2010, but it won’t help the party long term. For all of Anuzis’ new media twittering, he cities as a strength his roots in working class Detroit, near the spiritual home of the Reagan Democrats. That dying demographic that may be socially conservative, but remains economically populist and skeptical of free markets and freer trade.

Yet when asked for his ideological hero and favorite author, Anuzis conjured up the names of relatively obscure and radical free market figures, Ludwig von Mises and Frederic Bastiat. Mises and Bastiat are favorites of Ron Paul’s devoted fans, but their works wouldn’t sell well in Catholic, culturally conservative and economically depressed Hamtramck, Michigan.  

* Another Anuzis note: When Norquist (recalling the Rocky vs. Goldie brawls of ‘64) asked how as RNC chair the candidates would integrate new blood into the Republican Party, and avert the battles between veteran Republicans and Tea Party activists and Ron Paul supporters that have popped up at the local level, Anuzis noted that he worked for Jack Kemp’s presidential campaign in 1988. I was reminded that in that year, Anuzis’ Michigan was the site of bitter, distrusting skirmishes between then-Vice President Bush’s supporters and televangelist Pat Robertson’s Christian Right followers who were new to Republican party politics. Kemp’s forces straddled the fence. A commenter on the Michigan Liberal blog insisted in 2006, that “”The Anuzis' brothers stayed with the Pat Robertson faction.” It would be interesting to follow up on this with Anuzis, and find out how that experience might inform him in the chair.

* The candidates tripped over each other in vowing to implement “ballot integrity” plans and all warned that election fraud ever remains a threat to Republican electoral success.  Elections are arguably more difficult than ever to steal in this electronic age. So, it may be red meat for the base, but it’s not a wise issue to harp on. The mainstream media will decipher those 'code words' as Republican attempts to intimidate minority and young voters. (The liberal Talking Points Memo jumped on that within hours.) That narrative can drown out all Republican outreach efforts to those groups.

But all in all an interesting day.