WASHINGTON DC (CNN) - Call it a first step in the Republican Party's push to return from the political wilderness.
The six candidates running to lead the GOP's national committee face off today at a debate in Washington. The debate for the chairmanship of the Republican National Committee comes two months after the party lost the White House and lost seats in both houses of Congress. It also comes on the day that President-elect Barack Obama, just back from vacation, spends his first full day in nation's capitol as he prepares to take over the presidency.
The challenge for which ever of the six candidates who wins the chairmanship is to broaden the party's appeal with younger voters and minority voters. Republicans fared poorly with both groups at the polls in November. The party also needs to improve its appeal to moderate voters and to voters in the Northeast and the West, two regions where the GOP was basically shutout in the general election.
The debate, which will take place at the National Press Club, is being hosted by Americans for Tax Reform, a coalition of taxpayer groups, businesses and individuals opposed to higher taxes. Grover Norquist, ATR's president and a leader among fiscal conservatives, organized the debate and will serve as moderator.
Norquist says the candidates will all be asked the same questions, some of which will come from bloggers and party activists. Norquist wants to know what "the candidates have done in the past and what they would do as RNC chairman" on such subjects as technology, illegal immigration, and appealing to younger voters.
"My goal is to let the candidates showcase themselves," says Norquist.
The showdown, according to Norquist, will also the first time there will be a public debate for the chairmanship of the Republican party. It will be followed later in the week by two unprecedented behind-closed-doors meetings of RNC members to discuss the candidates. Later in the month, the 168 RNC members will vote for the new chairman. It's the first open race for the chairmanship in over a decade, as President Bush has recommended the party chairmen since his first election as president eight years ago.
“There is essentially no national leader of the Republican Party right now,” said CNN Political Editor Mark Preston. “President Bush assumed that role during his two terms in the White House, and the next RNC chair has the opportunity to lead the rebuilding and perhaps the reshaping of the Republican Party.”
The candidate making the most news lately is Chip Saltsman. Last month the former Tennessee GOP party chairman and the campaign manager of Mike Huckabee's presidential run sent party members a CD that included a parody song titled "Barack the Magic Negro." At a time that the party is trying to broaden its appeal to minorities and moderates, Saltsman's move was criticized by former House Speaker and Republican party elder Newt Gingrich. It was also criticized by Mike Duncan, the current RNC chairman who's running for re-election.
“I can’t imagine that he was trying to deliver a divisive, racist message by sending that CD to the RNC members,” Preston said. “In all of my dealings with him, I never detected anything like that. But it was a tone deaf move and the controversy can’t help him.”
The other candidates sharing the stage at the press club are two other state Republican party chairmen, Saul Anuzis of Michigan and Katon Dawson of South Carolina, former Maryland Lt. Governor Michael Steele and former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell.
“Every one of these candidates is conservative,” Preston said. “The next RNC chair is going to be the one person who is able to rise above the pack and preach a conservative ideology at the same time offering a game plan to win back Congress and a majority of the state capitals in 2010 and the White House in 2012.”
Regardless of who wins the chairmanship, Norquist wants this public debate format to become the standard operating produce in the future, even under a future Republican president.
But that's for a future chapter. First things first.