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In race for RNC chairman, money is focus

Money talks. And candidates for chairman of the Republican National Committee sure talked a lot about it at a forum for the job.

“We have to reestablish the confidence of high-dollar donors,” said Ann Wagner, a former Missouri GOP chairwoman and ambassador to Luxembourg, at a forum sponsored by Freedom Works, a group integral in the Tea Party, and the Republican National Conservative Caucus. She's one of two officially declared candidates for RNC chair. "It's money first, it's money second, and it's money third," she said later.

The RNC “fell short” and “didn’t raise enough money” to support local parties and candidates, said Saul Anuzis, an RNC committeeman from Michigan and the other officially declared candidate. Anuzis added that the Republican Governors Association and third-party groups, like American Crossroads, “stepped in” and filled the gaps created by the Michael Steele-led RNC.

“We have to have a chairman who is laser-focused on raising the money necessary,” said Gentry Collins, who is exploring a bid. Collins is the former political director of this RNC and, on his way out, issued a scathing letter criticizing Steele’s management and leadership. Some saw it as the political nail in the coffin for Steele’s tenure at the committee.

Collins vowed to raise between $400 million and $425 million, the amount he said would be necessary to defeat Barack Obama for president in 2012. “We didn’t have the resources to deploy that ground game,” Collins said of this RNC. “I came prepared to do that.”

“Money is the mother’s milk of politics,” said Mike Duncan, the former RNC chairman and surprise panelist at today’s forum. How much of a surprise? His name was written in marker on his name tag on the panelists' table; the others’ were typed. “There isn’t too much money in politics. There isn’t enough money.”

Duncan said he is thinking about a bid, but hasn’t officially declared. Wagner, Anuzis, Collins, and Duncan -- who were framed on the panel by the Gadsden and American flags -- were the only four of the potential candidates who showed up to the forum, which was attended by about 100 to 150 people, about 30 of whom were members of the media. Organizers expected Connecticut party Chairman Chris Healy as well as former Bush administration official Maria Cino to be at the forum as well, but neither showed. Both have indicated an interest in a bid, as have a handful of others.

Steele, though, was the elephant -- so to speak -- in the room. Steele did not attend the forum, was not expected to, and he hasn’t indicated if he will run for reelection. If he announces he won’t run, that could open the door to others like former Sen. Norm Coleman (R-MN). Coleman said he would not run if Steele seeks reelection.

The candidates avoided direct attacks on Steele for the most part. The first time his name was brought up came during the ninth question of the forum -- from a Twitter follower, who asked how Steele is vulnerable.

For the most part, the candidates used it as an opportunity to make the case for their own candidacies.

“It takes a woman to answer a tough question,” Wagner quipped, as she answered first at the unanimous urging of her colleagues. She reiterated that she would raise the money necessary and added that the RNC needs good management and “ethical” leadership.

Collins called Steele a “fine man” and a “good man,” but that the party under his leadership “didn’t raise the money required.” Collins also touted his own behind-the-scenes experience, saying the most successful RNC chairmen come from “professional political backgrounds,” not necessarily candidates for public office.

Duncan agreed that raising $400 million or more was necessary, and he noted, “I have the record.”

Anuzis, who admitted to Tweeting and doing Facebook posts during the panel, said this race isn’t about Steele, it’s about a different approach. “This isn’t about firing someone,” Anuzis said.

In a brief interview with First Read afterward, Anuzis shook his head when asked if Steele could get enough votes to win. “There’s a growing consensus for change,” he said. “It’s going to happen.”

The open question, though, is who will be the consensus candidate to become the next chairman. And that wasn’t settled today.