HONOLULU, Jan. 31, 2010 -- "Come on, don't ask me that," Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele said when presented with the inevitable question about his 2012 intentions and if his political aspirations included running for the White House next time around.
Half-way through his term as chairman of the Republican Party and wrapping up the RNC's annual winter meeting here at a beachside resort in President Obama's home state, Michael Steele clearly sees himself bringing a different style of leadership to a GOP in transition.
"In all honest-to-good seriousness, that is such silly Washington talk. It's just not even on my mind," Steele said about a possible presidential run.
"Let me tell you where my head and heart are," Steele added. "I'm a guy who thought it important to say, 'Put me in coach.' And when I help the party return to a governing majority, a stronger GOP, a party that really understands what it's about and what it believes in and is willing every day to go out there and fight for it."
Why not rule it out completely and keep those Washington tongues from wagging?
"I just did. I don't know how many different ways I can do that," Steele said. "How many different ways can you spell 'no'?"
There is little doubt that Steele will seek to return to elected office at some point in his future. And, of course, Barack Obama pretty much rendered such refusals and demurrals rather meaningless by stating on "Meet the Press" in January 2006 that he would not be a candidate for president in 2008 only to appear on the same program in October 2006 to announce he was open to a candidacy.
Steele's tenure at the helm of the RNC has not been without controversy. Most recently he and his team have had to battle back stories about his prediction that Republicans are not going to take back the majority in the House of Representatives this year and his occasional paid speeches around the country.
He chalks up some of the perhaps unwanted attention he gets in the press to what he describes as his unconventional style of leadership.
"Sometimes it's deliberate. Sometimes it's accidental," he said of discussing his penchant for pushing the rhetorical envelope. "I'm a very passionate guy. Sometimes I'll push the envelope because I want to get a rise, I want to see if you're paying attention. But then I realize, oh gee, they're more focused on me as opposed to the problem I was trying to highlight.
"And so that's when you realize, OK, I've got to approach this a little differently and you know have some more creative ways to do that."
When asked if he would work to avoid the sometimes accidental rhetoric that causes him and his aides occasional heartache, he said, "Oh, no. Accidents happen, baby."
Race Factors In
In the current issue of Washingtonian magazine, Steele wondered aloud if his race was part of the reason his critics were feeding some of the negative storylines about him that have emerged over the course of his tenure.
"I don't see stories about the internal operations of the DNC that I see about this operation. Why? Is it because Michael Steele is the chairman, or is it because a black man is chairman?" Steele is quoted as asking in the piece.
"It's not because of my race, but race is more of a factor than it ordinarily would be -- just as it is for Barack Obama," Steele said in response to a question following up on the Washingtonian piece.
"Look," he added, "I've been in this political world for a long, long time. And it was no different when I ran for lieutenant governor, no different when I became state party chairman. There is a different way of looking at how, particularly as a Republican, how we approach issues, how we approach problems. The general mindset when you see, hear or read about an African American, you think, politically, Democrat. And all of a sudden, you've got this brother who's a Republican and you go, 'OK now, what does that look like and how does it manifest itself?' That's it. More curiosity than anything else. It's just one of the things you've got to live with."
"There are people out there who look at what I do not through the prism of another RNC chairman," said Steele, "but then it's all colored, if I may use the term, by my style, which is very different."
A Party in Transition
It is sometimes hard to remember just how low the Republican Party was feeling about itself one short year ago on the heels of President Obama's historic inauguration.
Steele could barely contain how upbeat he feels about how the psychology of the party has shifted since then.
"We're a party that a year ago had our head in our navels looking down and looking backwards wondering what happened," Steele said. "Today, we're a party with our head up higher, looking forward and pointing to a different direction than the one this administration has us headed in. And I think that's a very important transition for us."
He also said that the party's ability to avert a vote on a withdrawn proposal for a so called "purity test" to be applied to candidates seeking RNC support was a moment of growth for the party.
"I think there was a sort of maturing of the party in those moments," said Steele.
Steele conceded that there are still some missing building blocks that need to fall into place for Republicans to fully capitalize on a political environment that is advantageous for them.
"It speaks to both the challenge and the opportunity the Republican Party has right now," he said. "And in the first instance, we have to understand that there are some pieces missing. And in the second instance, know what they are. And in the third instance, have some idea of what to do about it."
But the only specific missing piece to which Steele pointed was a psychological hurdle he felt his party needed to overcome in thinking they cannot compete in every state and every race.
Harnessing the Tea Party Activism
It is clear that one of the central challenges nationwide for Steele and his party this year will be to harness the significant enthusiasm and activism seen in the tea party movement -- home to much of the anti-incumbent, anti-establishment anger and frustration fueling American politics today.
It will be a very delicate dance for Republican leaders to seek to bring these newly politicized activists into their fold since they resist affiliation with both major political parties.
"I think it's all about attitude and approach," Steele said. "In the first instance, we don't have them in the fold. You're not trying to capture somebody and co-opt them or bring them in. What you're trying to do is figure out where you have common ground and stand on that ground together."
"I think it affords us an opportunity to partner and fight the same fight on the battleground of small government, low taxes, clearly free markets, free enterprise ... all those things that a lot of people out there are very nervous about," he added.
The issues that animate the tea partiers appear to be, at the moment, far more in line with what Republicans are espousing on economics than they are to the Democratic Party. Steele called the tea party movement "very critical" to his party's electoral successes in 2010.
"It's critical for both parties, quite frankly," he said. "You have an electorate out there saying, 'A pox on both your houses.' We've been through the first phase of that. That was a little thing called 2006 and 2008, so we know of what we speak when we say the voters are a little ticked off."
Steele has yet to solidify plans to address the Tea Party Nation convention in Nashville, Tenn., next week, but he hopes to be able to accept the organizer's invitation.
The event has proven to be quite controversial because of the for-profit nature of the event. High-profile Republican Reps. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., and Michelle Bachmann, R-Minn., have withdrawn from the program.
"I'm absolutely flattered and humbled to be asked to join the likes of Sarah Palin and others to come and address folks who've been a part of what I think has been one of the most important movements since the very first movement of revolutionaries a long time ago," Steele said.
As for what Sarah Palin should do with her reported $115,000 speaking fee, which she has said she will donate to "the cause," Steele had a suggestion.
"She could send it to the RNC," he said. "But short of that, giving it back to the cause is just as important, and that's really going to be up to her."