Washington (CNN) – Four candidates hoping to take over the Republican National Committee from Chairman Michael Steele warned party activists Wednesday that the GOP could risk their ability to capture the White House in 2012 unless a leadership change is made atop the party.
Their jabs at Steele, who has yet to announce if he will seek a second term at the committee, took place at a forum for RNC candidates sponsored by the Tea Party-aligned group FreedomWorks and the Republican National Conservative Caucus (RNCC), a coalition of conservative RNC members.
The RNC will elect a chairman at their mid-January winter meeting in Maryland.
Steele did not attend the forum and has been unusually quiet in recent weeks as he decides his future. More than a dozen current RNC staffers were spotted in the room observing the session, but none could say whether Steele will run again.
The four candidates – two of them official candidates, the other two seriously considering bids – sat together on a dais next to a yellow "Don't Tread on Me!" flag and pledged to work alongside the Tea Party movement and avoid meddling in Republican primaries.
But they agreed that it would take more than just Tea Party-fueled enthusiasm to unseat President Obama in 2012.
"I don't think we can count on 2012 offering the kind of tailwind for Republican candidates as it did in 2010," said Gentry Collins, who steered the RNC's political efforts until last month, when he quit with a blistering resignation letter accusing Steele of mismanagement and incompetence.
The nuts and bolts of the party operation must function at their highest level during a presidential cycle, the candidates argued, each making their case as to how they would do a better job than Steele.
Collins estimated that the RNC needs to raise and distribute between $400 and $425 million in 2012 to have a shot at defeating Obama.
Collins, who has not formally declared his candidacy, appeared alongside Michigan committeeman Saul Anuzis and former Missouri GOP chairwoman Ann Wagner, both of whom have officially entered the race.
They were joined at the last minute, surprising many in the room, by former RNC chairman Mike Duncan, who was one of five candidates who lost to Steele in the 2009 race for the chairmanship.
Duncan has been considering a repeat bid in recent months and told CNN he will decide on a possible bid within the next 10 days.
The four Republicans largely avoided mentioning Steele by name but blamed him for allowing the RNC's traditionally robust fundraising program to wither, leaving state party victory programs without critical funds during the 2010 election cycle and possibly costing the GOP several House seats.
The RNC had $4.5 million in debt as of mid-October and party insiders believe that figure will be substantially higher come the next reporting period.
It's a nightmare scenario that must not be repeated in 2012, each candidate warned, promising to devote most of their efforts to donor outreach and fundraising.
"A fully-funded RNC is the only way that we are going to take back the White House and the United State Senate and increase our gains," Wagner said.
Anuzis said he surveyed big GOP donors before launching his campaign. Eight out of every 10 donors he talked to complained that Steele never reached out to them since taking over the committee in 2009, Anuzis claimed.
He promised to spend two-thirds of his time raising money. "The challenge today is that we have to rebuild the confidence of the donors," he said.
Steele's absence from the event was not surprising, since the RNCC was formed in part to oppose Steele's bid in 2009, when he was the perceived "moderate" in the chairman's race.
Also not in attendance were a handful of other potential candidates, including former Bush administration official Maria Cino, Wisconsin GOP chairman Reince Priebus, Connecticut GOP chairman Chris Healy and former Sen. Norm Coleman, who are still gathering support for their campaigns or are waiting for Steele's next move before joining the field.
But Priebus, Cino, Healy and Coleman are expected to join the other candidates in attending a series of private interviews with the conservative caucus on Thursday.
Iowa committeeman Steve Scheffler, a fierce Steele opponent, said Wednesday's forum emphasized the unpredictable nature of the RNC election.
"It's a wide-open race, and at some point in time we find that one alternative to Steele," Scheffler told CNN. "But we may not even know who that is until the day of the election."