Washington (CNN) – It's anybody's guess which candidate will emerge as the next chairman of the Republican National Committee after Friday's election (see voting tally here), but RNC watchers largely agree on one thing: the reign of Michael Steele has come to an end.
The phrases "Steele's toast" and "Steele's done" were confidently thrown out by three different RNC delegates supporting rival candidates when asked Thursday to forecast the election, and even some of Steele's most ardent supporters privately admit that the outlook is grim.
The vote will happen Friday afternoon at the Gaylord National Hotel in suburban Washington. Over 100 members of the media have requested credentials to cover the likely end of Steele's rocky two-year term, marked by a seemingly endless parade of embarrassing gaffes and intra-party spats over RNC finances.
Members of the committee predict, though, that Steele may get a pat on the back on his way out the door in the first round of voting Friday.
Only 17 of the committee's 168 members have publicly committed to back Steele, according to a whip count conducted by The Hotline, but many expect that number to be significantly higher on Friday afternoon when members cast their first votes.
That would be a repeat of sorts from the 2009 RNC election, in which former chairman Mike Duncan made a strong showing on the first ballot but quickly saw his support move elsewhere as members sought a new direction in the wake of big Republican losses in the 2008 election.
Change is again in the air in 2011, but for reasons more to do with Steele's controversial leadership style than with any national trend.
Things are obviously looking up for Republicans in the wake of President Barack Obama's "shellacking" in November, but Steele's foes inside and outside the committee believe that GOP gains came in spite of the chairman and not because of him.
Several of Steele's closest allies on the committee have abandoned the chairman in recent weeks to support Wisconsin Republican Party Chairman Reince Priebus, who remains the favorite to win the election.
Priebus, himself a former Steele booster, picked up a big last-minute endorsement Thursday from New Hampshire GOP Chairman John Sununu, a respected senior voice on the committee.
The RNC vote is a ballot process in which a candidate must secure a majority of the 168 members. If no one gets to the required 85 votes in the first round - a certainty on Friday - balloting begins anew through multiple rounds until one Republican builds enough momentum to win.
A candidate can remain in the race as long as he or she chooses as the voting progresses from round to round, though underperformers are likely to drop out and may throw their support to another contender.
At least 43 members have publicly committed to vote for Priebus in the first round of balloting, and even his opponents say that the total could turn out to be larger, perhaps in the upper 50s.
The rest of the field - Michigan National Committeeman Saul Anuzis, former Missouri GOP Chairwoman Ann Wagner and former Bush administration official Maria Cino - all have support in the low-to-mid double digits.
Priebus and his backers hope to grow their support quickly and have the race wrapped up by the third or fourth ballot. But if he appears to lose steam as the field winnows, another candidate could easily emerge if the voting lasts longer than four rounds.
Priebus and Anuzis have a leg up on their rivals because both are members of the RNC at a time when most committee insiders appear eager to elect one of their own - someone they know and trust - to lead the party organization into the 2012 presidential election.
Wagner and Cino, meanwhile, have experience on the committee but are not currently RNC members. Their bids are doubly complicated by a rule that the top two posts at the committee must be occupied by members of the opposite sex.
Two frontrunners for the co-chairmanship - Florida National Committeewoman Sharon Day and current RNC Co-Chairman Jan Larimer - are female, meaning that their most loyal backers would be handcuffed from also supporting a woman for the top post.