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Steele In Hot Water Over Abortion Comments

Michael Steele gives the thumbs up on Day 3 of the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn., in September 2008. Steele was elected as party chair six weeks ago, but his reign has been rocky.
Win McNamee
Getty Images
Michael Steele gives the thumbs up on Day 3 of the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn., in September 2008. Steele was elected as party chair six weeks ago, but his reign has been rocky.

Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele is learning the hard way that it's difficult to get a second chance to make a good first impression.

And he'll find out pretty soon whether he gets a third or fourth chance.

Just six weeks into an already troubled reign as party chief, Steele was fighting for his political life Thursday after he characterized abortion as an "individual choice" during an interview and said gay-marriage decisions should rest with the states.

The comments, made during a no-holds-barred back-and-forth with GQ, were posted on the magazine's site late Wednesday.

By Thursday morning, Steele, the first African-American to head the RNC, was clarifying his remarks. He issued a statement that stressed his anti-abortion bona fides and his commitment to a constitutional amendment that would essentially overturn Roe v. Wade.

"I am pro-life," Steele said, "always have been, always will be."

But it remains unclear whether his explanation will mollify state party leaders weary of Steele's gaffe-a-week pace and placate hard-core conservatives who also support a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage.

"It is very difficult to reconcile the GQ interview with the chairman's pledge" to uphold and promote the party's platform, said Tony Perkins, who heads the conservative Family Research Council Action.

Former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, one of Steele's rivals for the RNC chair, told the conservative Web site on Thursday that Steele needs to "re-read the Bible, the U.S. Constitution, and the 2008 GOP platform."

Blackwell, a favorite of cultural conservatives, eventually threw his support to Steele and helped the former Maryland lieutenant governor win the chairmanship.

Saving His Job

Steele's step back comes hard on the heels of his apology to right-wing talk radio host Rush Limbaugh, whom Steele had characterized as an entertainer whose program could be "ugly" and "incendiary."

Longtime GOP strategists suggest that the freewheeling, personality-driven Steele will survive if he substantially lowers his profile and gets to work organizing and raising money for the fractured party.

And he needs to devise a media strategy — one that's decidedly less about him and more about the party's message and goals.

"I'm against us appearing befuddled," says GOP strategist Ed Rogers, who served under President George H.W. Bush.

"If he's not ready for an interview, then don't do it."

Ed Rollins, a veteran Republican campaign consultant, said he would advise Steele to steer clear of television, where the chairman once reigned as a conservative cable pundit.

"He has two jobs," Rollins says. "He needs to be the outside guy making speeches and raising money, and he needs to build the political organization."

'Pro-Life' Credentials

Rollins says that Steele's anti-abortion views are well-known and that ultimately "people will take him at his word."

Conservative lawyer James Bopp of Indiana says he has "never doubted [Steele's] pro-life position." An RNC member, Bopp did not support Steele for chairman because of his involvement with the moderate Republican Leadership Committee.

"I've read the entire GQ article and I think that his pro-life position was clear," Bopp says. "There have been selective quotations from it that have caused confusion, but his clarification should put the thing to rest."

But some hard-core conservative leaders, including Perkins, have characterized Steele's comments as troubling and divisive. Others looked at the situation as an opportunity to push harder for their anti-abortion agenda.

"We're waiting to see what he does," says Marjorie Dannenfelser of the Susan B. Anthony List, which works to help elect female candidates who oppose abortion. "I know personally that he is truly pro-life," she says. "This is an opportunity."

The reality is that it would take a two-thirds vote by RNC members to remove him, and Steele on Thursday was not signaling an intention to resign.

His fate may rest on how effective he is in coming weeks on the fundraising circuit and whether his party retakes New York's heavily Republican 20th Congressional District in a special election March 31 to replace Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand.

In 2006, Gillibrand defeated the four-term GOP incumbent. She resigned from the House earlier this year when appointed to the U.S. Senate to serve out now-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's unexpired term.

Though it may be too early for Steele's RNC obit, he faces a crucial time in the days and weeks ahead — managing not only his job but the crisis he created with the GQ interview and the stumbles that preceded it.

"Everybody needs to take a breath and think," Rogers says.

Steele is only weeks into his two-year term and "hasn't committed any impeachable offense," he says. "We've fumbled and struggled, but it's not determinative."

Steele, no doubt, is hoping that the 168 members of the RNC — or at least more than a third of them — agree.

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