Washington (CNN) – Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele will be in the hot seat Monday when he faces, for the first time, the candidates seeking to replace him atop the cash-strapped party organization.
But Monday's debate at the National Press Club will also be a key hurdle for the man widely regarded as the frontrunner in the race: Wisconsin GOP Chairman Reince Priebus, a soft-spoken Milwaukee attorney who remains largely unknown to Washington's political class.
Priebus oversaw a banner election year for Republicans in Wisconsin and is close to Rep. Paul Ryan and Sen.-elect Ron Johnson, but is perhaps better known within the Beltway for his ties to the embattled Steele, whom he served under as RNC General Counsel before resigning in December to launch his own campaign for the chairmanship.
After the somewhat awkward process of extracting himself from the chairman's orbit, Priebus deftly lined up endorsements from close Steele allies as well as fierce Steele critics eager to find a competent committee insider to replace their drama-prone leader.
Priebus now boasts support from 30 of the RNC's 168 voting members, more than any of his rivals, including the incumbent Steele.
The Wisconsinite even picked off one of his opponent's supporters late Sunday, securing the backing of Delaware GOP Chairman Tom Ross, who had pledged to vote for Michigan Committeeman Saul Anuzis.
But Priebus' frontrunner status places him squarely in the crosshairs of his opponents, who are keen to highlight his relationship with the controversial chairman that he helped elect in 2009.
A stumble by Priebus in the debate – sponsored by Americans for Tax Reform, the Susan B. Anthony List and The Daily Caller – might open the door to one of the other candidates in a crowded race that will likely be decided on multiple ballots at the RNC's Winter Meeting on January 15.
Eighty-five votes are needed to capture the chairmanship, a threshold too high for any candidate to reach in the first round of the balloting process.
The field of candidates abruptly narrowed Sunday when former RNC Political Director Gentry Collins, a widely-respected party operative, abandoned his bid after failing to gain traction among RNC members apparently hungry to have of their own lead the committee.
Collins' departure sets the stage for a five-person, two-week fight between Steele, Priebus, Anuzis, former Missouri GOP Chairwoman Ann Wagner and longtime Republican operative Maria Cino.
While most politicians entered a state of relative hibernation during the holiday season, the RNC race has continued apace, with the candidates crisscrossing the country and dialing committee members for votes.
The last two weeks have also seen a flurry of negative campaigning, some of it via anonymous e-mails sent to RNC members and reporters, with Priebus emerging as the main target.
Connecticut GOP Chairman Chris Healy blasted Preibus as a flip-flopping latecomer to the anti-Steele crowd, reminding fellow committee members in an e-mail of Priebus' efforts to defend Steele at some of the chairman's most controversial moments.
"When Steele announced the 'Fire Pelosi Tour,' a self-indulgent waste of time and resources, Preibus was tossing 'Fire Pelosi' hats to anyone who would have them," Healy wrote.
Michigan Committeewoman Holly Hughes, the point person for Steele's re-election bid, circulated an e-mail of her own last week all but accusing Priebus of being a stalking horse for Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, who may seek the presidency in 2012.
One of Priebus's top backers on the committee is Henry Barbour, the governor's nephew and political adviser.
"Sure, it makes sense that certain candidates contemplating a run for the presidency would want to control the RNC and have their person as RNC Chair," Hughes wrote. "Such a candidate however, would not want Michael Steele because he will be an honest broker and provide an even playing field for all those running."
Priebus and his allies have dismissed the attacks as typical maneuvering by rivals desperate to catch fire.
David Norcross, a former RNC member from New Jersey held in high esteem by anti-Steele forces on the committee, sent an e-mail to members Sunday calling the attacks on Priebus "childish and inappropriate."
Norcross defended Priebus against anonymous claims about his law firm, Michael Best & Friedrich LLP, including one accusation that Priebus was part of a team that counseled clients on how to obtain federal money available under the Obama stimulus plan.
"To attempt to paint Reince in a liberal light because of others at a large law firm or an improperly referenced case is simply nonsense," Norcross wrote. "These claims need to be put to rest."