New Orleans (CNN) - In the wake of a messy spending scandal that did serious damage to his standing atop the Republican National Committee, Michael Steele offered a mea culpa at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference on Saturday.
“I’m the first here to admit I’ve made mistakes and its incumbent on me to take responsibility, shoulder that burden, make the necessary changes and move on,” Steele told a polite but half-empty ballroom at the conference, where he was the final speaker on the agenda.
“The one mistake we cannot make this November is to lose,” he said.
Steele has battled two weeks of bad headlines after it was revealed that RNC spent donor money at a sex-themed Hollywood nightclub - a controversy that exacerbated grumbling among Republicans already skeptical of Steele’s ability to raise the money needed to compete in November.
“In life you realize very quickly that you can’t please everyone, but you can certainly make them all mad at you at the same time,” Steele told the audience. “That is a lesson well learned. It is an opportunity as well. Because folks have been mad at us in the past, and we have learned from that past, and we are now ready to move on into a brighter future as leaders, as Republicans, as conservatives.”
Steele arrived in New Orleans on Thursday but has been nearly invisible to most of the conference delegates, opting instead to meet behind closed doors with party insiders and members of the RNC.
Some of Steele’s allies on the committee have used the three-day event to organize a letter of support for the embattled chairman after some called for his resignation. Other RNC members in attendance groused privately about Steele’s seeming inability to avoid controversy.
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum met with the chairman on Saturday morning to have what a Santorum aide called “a very frank discussion” about Steele’s stewardship of the committee. Steele requested the sit-down last week, after Santorum publicly chided the party leader over the nightclub story.
Despite questions about his standing among party insiders, Steele gradually warmed up the crowd with some of his trademark partisan rhetoric and won a handful of standing ovations.
He also reprised a controversial message that Democrats criticized in March, when an internal RNC fundraising presentation showed that the party planned to raise money by capitalizing on “fear” of President Obama.
Steele criticized the document when it became public - but on Saturday he appeared to embrace the fear message.
“Republicans get accused by the other side of having a message based on fear, well they are right,” he said. “But the founding fathers were fearful first, they were afraid of unchecked power in government, and so are we.”