After driving the cost-conscious Republican Party $20 million into debt during a GOP year, Michael S. Steele, the headline-grabbing chairman of the Republican National Committee, is in trouble.
And a longtime party operative from North Buffalo on Monday made her bid to replace him, as did three others who debated Steele, campaign-style, at the National Press Club.
Maria Cino, a former aide to then-Rep. Bill Paxon whose behind-the-scenes work helped Republicans win the House majority in 1994, delivered a gaffe-free performance in a debate where Steele and two other competitors on occasion left the audience either stunned into silence or laughing out loud.
Yet Cino is still considered a long shot in the race, thanks to wariness among "tea party" Republicans who fret about her ties to former President George W. Bush and her record as a health care lobbyist.
For proof, witness what happened when Cino, who worked for the Pfizer drug conglomerate, was asked whether she lobbied for President Obama's health care reform bill.
She replied that she worked with Republican lawmakers to try to include GOP principles in the bill. For example, Cino said, she worked "against death panels and rationing" and for malpractice insurance reform.
But that wasn't good enough for one woman in the audience, who cried out: "What about Obamacare?"
Cino replied that she did not work to promote the president's health plan, but "for the Republican principles I just mentioned."
Right-leaning blogs began attacking Cino on the health care issue and others in early December. Gateway Pundit noted that Pfizer's CEO pushed for Obama's health care reform. Andrew Breitbart's BigGovernment.com nailed her for that and for a $1,000 contribution to moderate Delaware Republican Michael N. Castle, who lost a Senate primary to tea party darling Christine O'Donnell.
Given that Cino served as a top Republican politico during George W. Bush's two presidential campaigns, BigGovernment.com's Dan Riehl labeled her "the establishment-backed candidate."
Asked after the debate about her ties to the Bush presidency, Cino said: "Every one of the people sitting up there was in some way or shape or form involved in the [Bush] campaign or benefited from the Bush campaign."
Moreover, she said her close ties to the Bush donor base could help the GOP now. "Many of those fundraisers in the Bush presidency will be the major donors who will help us get out of debt this time," Cino said.
Cino has been making such arguments for weeks to the 168 members of the RNC, who, late next week, will elect a chairman for the term extending past the next presidential election.
So far, though, Cino's campaign -- backed by the likes of former Vice President Dick Cheney and GOP pundit Mary Matalin -- is lagging in the race for the 85 votes that it will take to win the chairmanship.
National Journal's website reported Monday that Wisconsin GOP Chairman Reince R. Priebus is in first place with 30 commitments from RNC members, followed by Steele with 15.
Former RNC Co-chairwoman Ann L. Wagner of Missouri reportedly has 12 votes lined up, compared with 10 for former Michigan GOP Chairman Saul Anuzis and six for Cino.
Hoping to build momentum in the debate, Cino pushed her credentials as the candidate of experience. "I have successfully done this job before," she said. "My past experience has given me the skills and the foundation to build the party. I walk into the RNC with no on-the-job training necessary."
A graduate of Mount St. Joseph Academy and St. John Fisher College, Cino, 53, has been active in Republican politics for three decades. She is a former RNC deputy chairwoman and served as executive director of the National Republican Congressional Committee in 1994, when Republicans gained control of the House.
Cino was political director for Bush's 2000 campaign and most recently served as chief executive officer for the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn., in 2008.
But that might not be the kind of experience the GOP is seeking.
Priebus, the leading candidate, led Wisconsin Republicans to control in the State Legislature while also winning the governorship, a U.S. Senate seat and several House seats last year.
He did it by teaming with tea party groups in the state -- a fact that he stressed repeatedly throughout the debate. "As I said many times, we learned how to work with the conservative movement," he said.
Steele argued that his two-year term had produced results -- namely a GOP wave in the 2010 elections. "My record speaks for itself," he said. "We can do more, and we will do it better."
But several of the candidates noted that the party was now $20 million in debt at the start of the two-year presidential campaign, and Wagner blamed Steele for it.
"It is time for some tough love at the RNC," said Wagner, who also said Steele -- whose term has also been marked by a series of gaffes -- had cost the party credibility.
Then again, Steele by no means had a monopoly on gaffes during Monday's debate. For example, Priebus stunned the crowd into silence by essentially saying that the GOP under his leadership would be a small tent. "If you're pro-abortion, pro-stimulus, pro-bailout -- well, then guess what? You might not be a Republican," he said.
Later, when asked the title of her favorite book, Wagner replied: "Favorite bar? Probably my kitchen table."
Told amid the din of laughter that she had misheard the question, she then noted that her favorite book is Bush's best-selling memoir, "Decision Points."
As for Steele, he said his favorite book is Leo Tolstoy's "War and Peace."
Steele then intoned: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times" -- mistakingly quoting from Charles Dickens' "A Tale of Two Cities" and prompting howls of laughter throughout the ballroom.
As if that were not enough, Steele earlier ruminated on efforts to lure Republicans to the GOP to ensure a new generation of leadership.
That's necessary "because all of us are going to need to retire, probably sooner or later for some," Steele said, causing a wave of nervous giggles.