OXON HILL, Maryland (CNN) - Michael Steele’s first 100 days as party chairman were marred by a string of public gaffes and committee infighting that often spilled over into the media.
But Steele’s supporters on the committee insist those stumbles are only part of the story. Reporters, they say, have ignored the chairman’s efforts to rebuild the party from the bottom up by getting out of Washington and meeting with Republicans in 23 states since assuming the chairmanship.
“The chairman of the Republican National Committee is talking about the issues that are important to the American voter, and the issues that are talked about around the dinner table,” said Florida GOP chairman Jim Greer.
According to Steele’s backers, grassroots activists are being courted, candidates are being recruited, state party chairmen are communicating about strategy on a weekly basis, and low dollar donations are pouring in to the committee like never before. The groundwork for a Republican comeback in 2010 is being laid, they claim.
The RNC, no longer operating as an extension of the White House, has undergone “a complete re-orientation” while out of power, according to California GOP chairman Ron Nehring. “This Republican National Committee is operating in a completely different manner than the previous RNC operated,” Nehring said.
Despite those apparent achievements, the Michael Steele most Americans know is the one who appears on television as the face of the GOP, and Steele’s allies acknowledge some missteps on the communications front. Since becoming party chief, Steele has been criticized by Republicans for getting into a turf war with Rush Limbaugh, calling abortion "an individual choice," and giving "some slum love" to Louisiana's Indian-American governor Bobby Jindal. Those are just three examples.
But his supporters argue that Steele has been scrutinized by the media in a way his predecessors never were.
“We’ve never had a chairman who has had this exposure, ever,” said Michigan committeewoman Holly Hughes. “It was so much so that you almost had to pull him back in the office during those first two weeks. And it’s not stopped since.”
Greer claimed that Steele’s past stumbles are simply part of an ongoing conversation with American voters. He said voters are more interested in conversations than speeches.
“When you and I talk, there are times when you want to convey something to me but you don’t do it exactly right,” he said. “That’s a conversation.”
Although Steele promised in a speech to state chairmen on Tuesday that the GOP has officially “turned the corner,” RNC members seem to agree that no matter what Steele has accomplished thus far, the real test of the Republican Party’s strength will come with two governor's races this fall in Virginia and New Jersey, followed by the 2010 mid-term elections.
Longtime committee member David Norcross of New Jersey, who supported one of Steele’s rivals for the chairmanship and pushed a resolution to rein in the chairman’s ability to control the RNC’s purse-strings, said that Steele “made the right steps” in his remarks on Tuesday. But he added that any talk of Steele’s success at this point is “premature.”
“He’s got a ways to go,” said Norcross. “You don’t change things in a day.”