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Michael Steele: "I Wanted a Brokered Convention"

Before he was booted as GOP chair, Steele changed the party's primary contest rules—and now Romney and the Republican establishment are paying for his chaos-theory experiment.

| Mon Mar. 12, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

At a meeting in Kansas City in August 2010, the 168 members of the party's national committee considered the proposed changes. "Based on what we saw with the Democrats in 2008," Heye recalls, "we argued that an expanded primary system would benefit the party by leading to a stronger nominee and helping to register more voters." Some committee members, though, were wary of mirroring the Democrats. "They said, 'We're going to fall into their trap,'" Heye notes. The concern: An elongated primary battle would suck up money and time that could be better spent assailing Obama.

Though Steele was hoping to shake things up to make the 2012 race unpredictable, some Republicans suspected the reforms were actually being advanced to assist Romney. They believed that only a well-financed and well-organized candidate would be able to survive and thrive in a prolonged process. "They thought this was fixing the system for Mitt," a former party official says. And Heye notes, "By and large, if you supported Mitt Romney, you supported the changes."

Beth Myers, who managed Romney's 2008 campaign and who advises his current endeavor, for example, backed the notion of starting later and boosting the number of relevant primaries, more or less endorsing the package. Former New Hampshire Governor John Sununu, then chair of his state's Republican Party and a prominent Romneyite, delivered an impassioned argument at the Kansas City confab in favor of the changes, contending the reforms would impose order on what had seemed to be a chaotic process in 2008.

It was an odd confluence of interests. Steele was yearning to stir the pot. Right-wingers were hoping to avoid a repeat of 2008, when a mainstream Republican outmaneuvered the more conservative candidates. The Romney crew was hankering for a schedule that would best suit a deep-pocketed, well-organized candidate who could go the distance.

"A little chaos is a good thing, particularly in a system that tends to be moribund," Steele says.

After the vote—more than two-thirds of the RNC's members supported the new rules—Steele declared that the changes "will put our presidential nominating process on the right track and ensure that we emerge from the primaries with the strongest Republican nominee possible to defeat Barack Obama."

That was the theory. It's not clear it will turn out that way.

In defiance of the party, Florida moved up its 2012 primary, and Iowa and New Hampshire had to follow to ensure their first-in-the-nation bragging rights. This created a longer front-end than Steele and the others anticipated. And this elongated slog was dominated by vicious Republican-on-Republican brawling, often underwritten by super-PACs. The result has been a primary contest that has turned off Republican voters (turnout is down) and alienated independent voters (Romney's disapproval rating among indies has soared). "We got the negative aspects without the positive aspects," Heye laments.

And Romney backers have been complaining about the new system. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who has campaigned with Romney, recently called it "the dumbest idea anybody ever had," and the head of the Vermont GOP likened this year's reformed schedule to "water torture." Conservative columnist George Will has practically written off Romney. It seems that this drag-down slugfest will continue for weeks, if not months, for the new rules create an incentive for the non-Romneys to stick it out (and bash away at Romney). With proportional allotment of delegates, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, and Ron Paul can continue to bag delegates that can later be redeemed for influence at the convention—especially if Steele's dream comes true and Romney ends up short of an all-out majority of delegates and has to reach a backroom arrangement with one of his GOP foes.

Steele, now an MSNBC commentator, has no regrets. "We have captured the national imagination for the last year," he asserts. "That was not the case four years ago." But is all publicity truly good publicity? Romney's image has not improved as he has been stuck in this cat fight with Santorum and Gingrich. (In curious fashion, Paul has refrained from whacking Romney.) Romney may have honed his debating and campaigning skills. But he has not connected with the party's base. He has not won the admiration of in-the-middle voters. He has not inspired. (His message de la semaine is a technocratic insistence that the delegate math is undeniably in his favor and the rest of the party, including Santorum and Gingrich, ought to just accept that.) At this stage of the race, Romney looks more bruised than bolstered—which was not the case with Obama in 2008.

"A little chaos is a good thing, particularly in a system that tends to be moribund," Steele says, in defense of his rules. How good—or how bad—cannot be determined until later this year. But Romney and the party could end up paying big time for Steele's chaos theory experiment.

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