NATIONAL HARBOR, Md., Jan. 14, 2011 — -- The 168 members of the Republican National Committee are poised to elect a party leader on Friday in a vote that could end the tumultuous two-year term of current RNC Chairman Michael Steele.
Members of the committee from all 50 states as well as U.S. territories as far away as Guam who are gathered at a conference center just outside Washington, D.C., were preparing for what could be a lengthy, multiple-ballot contest that will decide a contentious race between five candidates vying for the RNC's top job.
Though some of Steele's allies warned it was premature to count him out, many GOP insiders predicted that his time at the helm of the RNC was drawing to a close.
"I think it's a foregone conclusion he's done," said New Hampshire Republican Party Chairman John H. Sununu. "Whether it's his fault or not his fault doesn't matter at this point. It's clear he can't continue to run the committee. The contributors have made it clear. A number of the states have made it clear. People don't have enough confidence in him."
Sununu, who served as White House chief of staff under President George H.W. Bush, formally endorsed Wisconsin GOP Chairman Reince Priebus for RNC chairman on Thursday. Heading into the vote, Priebus has more public endorsements than any other candidate, including Steele.
Other contenders for the position include former Missouri Republican Party Chairwoman Ann Wagner, former Michigan GOP Chairman Saul Anuzis, and former Bush administration official Maria Cino.
The candidates and their supporters spent Thursday feverishly securing last-minute endorsements. Each one expressed optimism that they would find a path to the chairmanship.
"I feel good, I feel strong," said Wagner, a former ambassador to Luxembourg under President George W. Bush.
Wagner added that she had been "burning up the phone lines," over the last few weeks, lobbying members to join her side.
Despite the retail politicking on display in the corridors of the hotel playing host to the RNC's winter meeting, many members have kept their preferences close to the vest.
"I'm for change," Massachusetts National Committeeman Ron Kaufman said as he headed into a forum with all five candidates on Thursday afternoon.
Volunteers for Anuzis stood nearby holding up bright blue sports pennants with the message: "Anuzis: Tackling the Fundamentals."
High-profile endorsements from inside and outside the committee have been plentiful in recent days. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has been actively campaigning for Cino -- he met personally with committee members on her behalf on Wednesday night -- while Puerto Rico Gov. Luis Fortuno threw his support behind Priebus earlier this week.
"I like our momentum," said Mississippi Committeeman Henry Barbour, one of the party leaders spearheading the Priebus campaign.
"I think you've got a lot of folks who, Reince is not their first choice, but they see him as a good result for the party because he will unify the committee," said Barbour, the nephew of Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour. "They look at the track record he had in Wisconsin. He's very capable as a leader."
Some ardent Steele backers showed no signs of giving up. New Mexico RNC Committeeman Pat Rogers called Steele the "front-runner" arguing that other candidates have hit a ceiling of support.
Throughout the race, Steele's supporters have pointed to the committee's role in guiding the party to a series of impressive midterm election victories last November.
The current chairman's opponents acknowledged that Steele might receive the most votes on the first secret ballot cast on Friday, but said his support likely would dwindle in subsequent rounds. Two years ago, it took more than four hours and six ballots to elect Steele as chairman.
RNC officials said there was no way of knowing how long the voting will take. Friday's general session begins at 10:30 a.m. ET and the official meeting schedule lists 8 p.m. ET as the estimated end time.
Whoever wins will inherit committee hobbled by financial difficulties, including debt in the range of $15 million or more.
Former Republican National Committee Chairman Mike Duncan, who is opposing Steele and briefly flirted with running again for the chairmanship this year, said that what the RNC needs in a new leader is "competence, pure and simple."
"We've got plenty of spokesmen for the party," Duncan said in an interview with ABC News. "It's someone who understands the budget, understands how to raise the money and understands how to implement the programs that we need going into a presidential election."