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Steele to stay in GOP post - but out of loop

• San Francisco Chronicle

Michael Steele is staying put as Republican Party chairman.

Despite his widely condemned comments on Afghanistan, even his GOP critics want to avoid a drawn-out fight over the party's most prominent African American just four months before midterm elections.

Instead, GOP elders are working around Steele, illustrating their lack of confidence in his leadership of the Republican National Committee and the challenge he would face should he seek a second term in January.

The outspoken Steele has faced calls for his resignation from conservatives and some in the GOP after he said the 9-year-old conflict in Afghanistan was a mistaken "war of Obama's choosing." So far, Steele has ignored demands for him to step down.

And interviews with more than a dozen party operatives indicate there's little desire to wage a complicated, perhaps uncertain, effort to oust him with just six months left in his two-year term.

"Everyone is basically working around him," said former GOP Rep. Vin Weber of Minnesota, who added that Steele has marginalized himself further with every gaffe.

"Republicans have sort of put together a mode of operation for this election cycle that does not put the RNC chairman in a central role," Weber said. "That's not the optimal way of handling things. But in a very strange way that gives him some protection because there's no urgency to replace him - no matter how grave of a misstep he made."

Trying to oust Steele could be an unwanted spectacle at a pivotal juncture, with weeks of headlines of Republicans in disarray heading into elections where the party is favored to win seats in Congress and governors' races.

Come January, however, Steele likely will face a serious re-election challenge as the party gears up for the 2012 presidential race. Some Republicans say chances are slim that he wins a second term. Others argue that he might have a case if Republicans pick up congressional seats.

The first black person to lead the GOP, Steele was a party outsider elected to a two-year term in January 2008 just as Barack Obama - the country's first black president - was taking office.

Steele's tenure has been rocky with frequent allegations of questionable spending, anemic fundraising, staff shakeups and cringe-inducing comments. All that has prompted criticism from within Republican ranks and weakened the party figurehead.

After his latest gaffe, Steele spent the weekend calling key RNC members to control the damage. On Sunday, Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina repudiated Steele's comments but neither demanded Steele's resignation, saying it was up to Steele to decide whether he could continue to lead the party.

By Tuesday, Steele had canceled an upcoming appearance at the Aspen Institute but was still scheduled to headline the Nevada GOP convention on Friday.

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