WASHINGTON (CNN) – The campaign to determine who will lead the Republican party into the era of Obama took a series of unexpected turns Wednesday, beginning with the removal of non-party members from a highly-anticipated “special meeting” of the Republican National Committee.
After RNC members voted to make their confab with the six candidates for party chairman closed to those not on the committee, nearly two dozen members of the media and a national TV crew were forced to leave the event and wait for news outside the conference room doors.
Inside the Capitol Hill meeting - a first-of-its-kind event, intended to give RNC members a chance to speak directly with the numerous candidates seeking the party’s top-post - Republicans quizzed the candidates on issues ranging from Second Amendment rights to the role of new technology, according to people in the room.
“We each got a minute to answer questions from the members,” said current RNC chairman Mike Duncan, describing the question topics as “a mix of philosophy and party structure.”
The open-and-closed-door meeting was followed by another surprising development: Florida Republican Party chairman Jim Greer, once thought to be considering his own bid for RNC chair, arranged a press conference to throw his support behind former Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele.
In announcing his endorsement, Greer commended Steele’s skills as a consensus builder and a communicator who understands not only “conservative values and principles,” but also the kitchen table issues that affect middle class Americans. That awareness, Greer said, will help Republicans win elections in his own swing state of Florida.
Steele has been described as a moderate by other members of the committee and the media, as has Greer. But standing by the Florida chairman at the press conference, Steele dismissed the notion that he is anything but a rock-ribbed member of the right.
“There are some who regard me as a moderate because I reach across the table and talk to people who disagree with me on issues, but how else do I build my party?” he asked.
“I’m proud to say I’m a conservative, have been, always will be,” Steele said. “So this notion that I’m a moderate is slightly overblown, and quite frankly a lie.”
Greer is one of 168 committee members who will cast ballots for chairman at the RNC Winter Meeting at the end of January. Perhaps not surprisingly, each of the candidates said they’re confident with the backing they have at the moment, and that the week’s events have helped them lock up even more support.
“We feel real good,” said former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell.
Katon Dawson, chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party, said he had won over several members of the committee since Monday.
“I think I’ve had a good week,” added former Tennessee GOP chairman Chip Saltsman, who said he will travel to six or seven Western states in the coming days to make his case to other RNC members.
Several of the candidates said the private, closed-press nature of Wednesday’s session allowed for a productive give-and-take with party members.
“I think members were asking more poignant and open questions and candidates were giving more poignant and open answers, realizing what we’re talking about is inside baseball,” said Saul Anuzis, chairman of the Michigan GOP.
Gary Emineth, an RNC member from North Dakota who pushed to organize Wednesday's gathering, surmised that the meeting may have helped several members make a final decision about which candidate to support.
“I think you’ll start seeing a lot of people rolling out here within the next week with who they’re endorsing,” he said.