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Who leads the US Republican Party?

By Max Deveson
BBC News, Washington

There can be little doubt as to who is currently in charge of America's Democratic Party.

Radio host Rush Limbaugh (L) and Alaska Governor Sarah Palin
Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin are Republican stars

From behind his desk in the Oval Office, Barack Obama can usually rely on the members of his party to follow his lead.

But the divided nature of the American political system means that the party that does not hold the White House does not have a single figure it can look to for leadership.

This means that the Republicans - who currently hold neither the White House, nor either House of Congress - find themselves without a leader.

A number of high-profile Republicans are attempting to fill this vacuum by promoting their own policy ideas, and the resulting debate about the future direction of the party has been vigorous, verging on rancorous.

'Hip hop settings'

Nominally, the job of bringing together the various distinct entities and factions that go to make up the Republican Party belongs to Michael Steele, chairman of the Republican National Committee (RNC).

Mr Steele is responsible for overseeing the party's campaigning and fundraising operations; so while Senators and Governors speak for their states, and congressmen speak for their districts, Mr Steele is - by virtue of his position - one of the few party officials with a national perspective.

He won election to his position in January, and during the campaign he was characterised as a moderate.

In his acceptance speech, he struck a note of inclusiveness: "We're going to say to friend and foe alike: We want you to be a part of us, we want you to with be with us."

It's not our job to be the opposition party. It's our job to be the 'better solutions party'
Newt Gingrich
Former Republican House Speaker

Since taking up his post, he has raised eyebrows with his attempts to use slang in order to - in his words - "apply [conservative principles] to urban-suburban hip-hop settings."

To that end, in an interview with the Washington Times, he promised that his public relations efforts would be "off the hook", and in a radio interview he dismissed elements of President Obama's stimulus package as "bling bling".

Mr Steele believes that in order to regain the electoral initiative, the party needs to reach out to new voters.

Another prominent Republican - former House speaker Newt Gingrich - thinks the party needs new ideas and fresh policies.

"It's not our job to be the opposition party. It's our job to be the 'better solutions party,'" he told the Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC)'s annual conference, an important gathering for the right-wing of the party.

His policy centre, American Solutions, regularly publishes position papers and pamphlets, and fellow Republicans are increasingly turning to the man who in 1994 led them out of the wilderness to victory in that year's congressional elections.

Not complicated

So, Mr Steele wants to reach out to new voters, Mr Gingrich wants to come up with new ideas. Enter Rush Limbaugh.

Speaking to the CPAC conference, Mr Limbaugh, the most popular right-wing radio host in the country, said the party needed strong leadership, not modified policies.

"The American people may not all vote the way we wish them to, but more Americans than you know live their lives as conservatives in one degree or another," he said.

"And they are waiting for leadership. We need conservative leadership. We can take this country back. All we need is to nominate the right candidate. It's no more complicated than that."

Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal
Mr Jindal's response to the president's speech was poorly received

And in what was perceived as a dig at Mr Gingrich, Mr Limbaugh insisted "one thing that we can all do is stop assuming that the way to beat them is with better policy ideas right now."

His speech was received rapturously by the CPAC audience, not least for his unabashed declaration that he wanted President Obama to "fail".

This assertion, which he had previously made on air, has been greeted with criticism in some Republican circles.

South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford noted that "anybody who wants [Mr Obama] to fail is an idiot, because it means we're all in trouble".

And Michael Steele, speaking on CNN, dismissed Mr Limbaugh as "an entertainer", with an "incendiary" and "ugly" style.

Mr Steele's remarks provoked a trenchant reaction from the radio host, who suggested Mr Steele was "off to a shaky start" at the RNC.

"I hope the RNC chairman will realise he's not a talking head pundit, that he is supposed to be working on the grassroots and rebuilding it," Mr Limbaugh continued.

"It's time, Mr Steele, for you to go behind the scenes and start doing the work that you were elected to do instead of trying to be some talking head media star, which you're having a tough time pulling off.

'Personal bulk'

It was Mr Steele's reaction to the outburst, however, that gave a hint as to the real locus of power in the Republican Party.

Shortly after Mr Limbaugh had spoken, Mr Steele told Politico.com: "My intent was not to go after Rush - I have enormous respect for Rush Limbaugh."

"I was maybe a little bit inarticulate," he added. "There was no attempt on my part to diminish his voice or his leadership."

Mr Steele's handling of the row has been criticised by some in the party.

"[Michael Steele's] exchange with Rush Limbaugh... was very clumsy," says Peter Wehner, a conservative writer and Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

"The jury is still out [on his performance as RNC chair]," he adds.

But Mr Limbaugh's ascendance has provoked opposition on the moderate wing of the party.

Former Bush speechwriter David Frum, writing on his website newmajority.com, bemoaned the prominence conservatives were giving to the radio host.

"With his private plane and his cigars, his history of drug dependency and his personal bulk, not to mention his tangled marital history, Rush is a walking stereotype of self-indulgence - exactly the image that Barack Obama most wants to affix to our philosophy and our party. And we're cooperating!"

There's no need to settle on a single leader now; my view is that there should be a lot of different voices out there, making their case, trying their arguments out
Peter Wehner
Ethics and Public Policy Center

Undeniably, Mr Limbaugh has - for the moment - become the uncrowned king of the conservative wing of the Republican party.

But he has no apparent desire to seek elected office; he will never truly lead the party by becoming, for example, its presidential nominee.

Who, then, is in the running to take charge of the party in its next battle for the White House?

Mr Wehner thinks it is too soon to tell.

"It's much too early to ordain a single GOP leader, and some of this - and perhaps much of this - depends on unfolding events," he tells me.

"There's no need to settle on a single leader now; my view is that there should be a lot of different voices out there, making their case, trying their arguments out."

Rising stars

For the attendees at the CPAC conference, former Massachusetts governor and failed presidential candidate Mitt Romney is still the favoured standard-bearer.

For the third year running, he won the organisation's presidential preference straw poll, this time with 20% of the vote, to Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal's 14%.

Mr Jindal has in recent years been hailed as a rising star of the party, and - his recent, poorly received response to President Obama's keynote speech to a joint session of Congress notwithstanding - he will likely be in the running for the party's nomination.

But CPAC do not have a track record of picking winners, as their consistent preference for Mr Romney indicates.

A recent CNN/ORC poll of Republicans nationwide indicates that a different candidate may emerge to rise to the top of the party.

CNN found that 29% of Republicans wanted Alaska governor Sarah Palin to be their party's candidate in 2012, with former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee coming in second with 26%.

Ms Palin - who rose to prominence last year as John McCain's running-mate - has been quiet while the furore over Rush Limbaugh's remarks has raged.

But if the polls are to be believed, then Republican voters may well be keen to find out where she stands on the future direction of the party.

And we could be hearing a lot more from her over the next few years.



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