Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele has not appeared on television -- or anywhere in public -- since early November. That's an eternity for the man who has been the most vocal and visible leader of the RNC in recent memory.
Steele's silence is even more deafening considering his own party's historic gains in the midterm elections. While other top Republicans are making the most of their moment in the sun, Steele appears to be flying under the radar.
But the chairman, who has yet to announce whether he will run for re-election, has his reasons.
He and the RNC have been hit with a string of negative stories, including the news that the committee is more than $15 million in debt and is having trouble paying its vendors on time. Critics charge that Steele has been a poor steward of the party's finances and allowed its high-dollar donor program to languish.
And a handful of the critics aren't just talking about what they view as Steele's failings; they are starting campaigns to replace him. Meanwhile, Steele has been out of sight and it's starting to appear less likely that he will seek another term.
If he does, Steele would face a strong bloc of opposition. Three candidates -- one former and one current state Republican Party chair and the committee's ex-general counsel -- have already officially announced their bids for Steele's job and several others, including the RNC's own former political director, are all but in the race.
"I just don't see how he is going to run," said GOP national committeeman Solomon Yue of Oregon, adding that Steele's decision to skip a candidate forum in Washington last week organized by a Tea Party-affiliated group, and the RNC's Conservative Caucus, did not bode well for his re-election prospects.
Yue, an unabashed Steele critic, also said that former Republican Sen. Norm Coleman's decision to participate in a closed-door candidate interview with conservative committee members was another hint that Steele might not get into the race.
Coleman has been an ally of Steele's and vowed that he will not seek the chairmanship if Steele decides to run.
As for Steele's own radio silence, a spokesman for the RNC declined to comment on the chairman's activities since Election Day.
In mid-November Steele circulated a memo to members of the committee defending his midterm election efforts, a move that RNC observers said was evidence that he would mount a campaign.
"The RNC has been, and will be, focused on a single goal: building an enduring majority party -- from the grass roots up," Steele wrote. "The 2010 election is the first step, but only the first, towards achieving that goal."
But since then he has only issued a handful of paper statements, and has not made any public appearances. And now his coalition is beginning to unravel.
On Monday another top Republican, who was once considered a Steele ally, Wisconsin GOP chief Reince Priebus, informed the 168 voting members of the RNC that he wants to be chairman. He stepped down from his position as RNC general counsel over the weekend.
A day later, former Michigan GOP Chairman Saul Anuzis, who was the first to declare his candidacy, won the endorsement of the Tea Party Nation. The group asked Sarah Palin to run for the job, but threw their support behind Anuzis when Palin declined.
"We need a conservative in as chair of the RNC," Tea Party Nation founder Judson Phillips wrote in a letter to his group. "If not, we will end up with the same class of GOP knuckleheads that blew it so badly in 2006 and 2008."
The list of those seeking to replace Steele is getting longer. It includes the third declared candidate, former Missouri GOP Chair Ann Wagner, as well as several others like Coleman, who are considering a bid, but have not officially announced. They are Gentry Collins, the RNC's political director during the 2010 cycle; Maria Cino, a former Bush administration official who ran the 2008 Republican National Convention; Mike Duncan, a former party chairman; and Chris Healy, the Connecticut GOP chair.
Though GOP insiders say that Steele could still count on a base of support even if he enters the race later than his competitors, time is running out. The RNC is scheduled to vote for a new chairman at its annual winter meeting in mid-January. Two years ago the election was a drawn-out process that took six ballots before Steele managed to put together the coalition he needed to win.
Yue and others have speculated that Steele's hopes would dim considerably if he does not enter the race with solid commitments from a majority -- or 85 -- of the RNC committee members.
"Without a first-ballot victory you are going to bleed to death on following ballots," Yue said. "You start losing more supporters and you just can't stop the hemorrhaging."
Steele's allies see the landscape differently.
Steele's chief of staff, Michael Leavitt, weighed in with another memo late last week reminding committee members of the party's sweeping November victories.
"Reports that have attempted to minimize the focus, energy and leadership of the RNC in securing the Republican successes of November are simply wrong," Leavitt wrote. "I feel that to allow these negative accounts to go unrebutted would be to allow a distortion of the truth, the truth that you and others at the RNC worked diligently and cohesively to achieve our historic gains and that millions of RNC donors, volunteers, and Republican voters organized and spoke forcefully on Election Day to reclaim our nation's future." (Leavitt offered seven pages of evidence to support that argument.)
One of Steele's staunchest defenders, Michigan GOP committeewoman Holly Hughes, said in an interview with ABC News that she still expects he will get into the race.
"Nothing's changed for me on the issue," Hughes, a newly-elected member of the Michigan state legislature said. "I don't care how many candidates get in or what the issue is. I've picked the guy who's proven he can do the job."