Republicans may choose their first black leader to claw back support

Desperate search for figurehead to challenge Obama's star power
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Banished to the wilderness, the embattled US Republican Party could choose its first ever black leader today as a first step in reinventing itself for the new political era.

In the House of Representatives, Republicans demonstrated remarkable unity this week when they voted unanimously against Barack Obama's $825bn (£580bn) economic stimulus package. The bill passed the House without their support but, next week, some Republicans in the Senate are expected to break ranks and support it.

But nowhere, it seems, is there a Republican figurehead with the capacity to challenge the Obama star power and charisma. The choice of the next chairman of the Republican National Committee (RNC) marks a chance to begin the fightback.

In a tightly contested race, the low-key incumbent Mike Duncan holds a small lead in endorsements. But if the party decides to make a symbolic break with its past, it may pick a black leader.

There are two black candidates in the running for the job: former Maryland lieutenant-governor Michael Steele, and former Ohio secretary of state Ken Blackwell. While the position lacks the visibility of a governor or a member of the Senate, the role is a crucial organisational one for the electoral battles ahead, and the party is in desperate need of a strong hand on the tiller. "We are at a low-water mark," said John Cornyn, a prominent Texas Senator. "You might say there is nowhere to go but up. I don't think that is necessarily true."

Since the 1960s, the Republican Party has counted on the "Southern Strategy" of stirring up white fears, especially in the Deep South, to ensure victory at the polls. Mr Obama's victory, and his upset victory in the traditionally Republican states of North Carolina and Virginia, are forcing the party leadership to think hard about the future.

The old race-baiting style of politics works less well now that voters are more urban than rural. That's what Chip Saltsman, a Tennessee candidate for the leadership, discovered after he circulated a song called "Barack the Magic Negro" in December. As of yesterday afternoon, Mr Saltsman has no public endorsements from the 168 voting Republicans and his name was not expected to appear on ballots.

Seeing how the wind was blowing, the Republican South Carolina state chairman Katon Dawson, decided to resign from his whites-only country club in September. He is still hopeful of being elected.

Incumbent Mike Duncan's 36 endorsements, meanwhile, are still a long way from the 85 he needs to win the contest. And for those Republicans looking for a charismatic megastar, Mr Duncan seems an unlikely candidate. When he announced that he was seeking re-election as chairman of the Republican National Committee, The New York Times ran a photo of his opponent, the Michigan party chairman Saul Anuzis instead.

To cheer themselves up as they contemplate their options, Republican Party leaders in Washington need only glance from their senatorial campaign headquarters to see the still-blazing Eternal Flame of Freedom outside. It commemorates the day their party took charge of Congress in 1994.

The prospects of the party returning to prominence anytime soon don't look great but choosing a leader who will reinvigorate the party after its string of defeats is a start. Overcoming the anger at the mess left by George Bush and dealing with the star power of Mr Obama could take longer.

President Obama's approval rating stands at 84 per cent, according to a CNN poll, and 56 per cent of Americans say the country is better off with Democrats controlling Congress. The next Republican chairman will have to rebuild the party from the ground up and is unlikely to emerge as a potential presidential candidate.

The next Republican leader? Three front-runners

Mike Duncan

Endorsements: 36

The current chairman of the RNC, Mike Duncan is hoping the party faithful will look past last year's election loss and choose him for a second term. However, his perceived ties to George Bush – he was chosen by the former president for the post, running unopposed in 2007 – may mean that his time is up.

Ken Blackwell

Endorsements: 13

One of two African-American candidates vying for the position, Blackwell has a strong backing from social conservatives. In a debate earlier this month he said too many Republicans "campaign like Ronald Reagan and govern like Jimmy Carter". Some fear Blackwell – a former Ohio Secretary of State – lacks the charisma for the top position.

Chip Saltsman

Endorsements: 0

Saltsman's achievements as campaign manager for Mike Huckabee's impressive run for the Republican nomination have been undone by a CD he distributed which included a parody song entitled "Barack the Magic Negro". And would the former Tennessee party chairman remain impartial if Huckabee ran again?