OXON HILL, Md. (AP) -- Embattled GOP Chairman Michael Steele fought to hang onto his post Friday atop the Republican National Committee.
Four challengers argued that they would be better stewards of the party heading into the 2012 elections, when defeating President Barack Obama will be the GOP's primary objective.
Steele, who surprised even his closest aides by seeking re-election, was undeterred as he presided over the RNC's winter meeting, perhaps for the last time.
"I want to thank you so much for the chance to serve at a time when our party was changing, struggling to grow, regain its footing, find its voice, reconnect with people and to stand proud again," he told the 168 committee members before voting started. Eighty-five votes are needed for victory.
A telegenic though gaffe-prone party leader, Steele registered some level of public support as voting began. But many committee members were keeping their intentions private and several rounds of votes were expected, making it tough to predict the winner.
Steele argues that he should be re-elected because of the GOP's record of coast-to-coast victories while he was chairman last fall, including winning control of the House. But he doesn't mention that Republican operatives formed a network of outside groups that adopted traditional national party functions out of a concern about the RNC's ability under Steele to raise money and deploy resources to key races.
Steele's challengers were: Reince Priebus, the Wisconsin Republican Party chairman who ran Steele's chairmanship bid in 2009; Maria Cino, a New York native and a veteran party operative who served in the Bush administration; Ann Wagner, a former Missouri state GOP chair who once was an ambassador under George W. Bush; and Saul Anuzis, a former chairman of the Michigan Republican Party who lost to Steele two years ago.
The victor will be tasked with running the top Republican Party organization in the country.
The job includes serving as the leading spokesman promoting the party's agenda and countering that of Democrats, raising money to help Republicans win in the next elections, and beefing up a get-out-the-vote effort that critics say languished under Steele.
Most urgently, the new chairman must retire an RNC debt of nearly $22 million owed to vendors and banks, as well as lure back demoralized donors who have been so frustrated with Steele's management that they sent their dollars elsewhere or didn't open their wallets at all last year. The party had only about $1 million cash on hand at year's end.
The next leader also will have to figure out how to navigate a GOP civil war in which conservatives and tea party disciples are trying to pull the Republican Party even further to the right, much to the chagrin of moderates and some longtime establishment leaders.
The first black to lead the Republican Party, Steele was a party outsider elected to a two-year term in January 2008 just as Obama - the country's first black president - was taking office.
Since then, Steele, the former lieutenant governor of Maryland, has spent much of his tenure fending off criticism. He faced frequent complaints about questionable spending, anemic fundraising, staff shake-ups and cringe-inducing comments.
Longtime establishment Republicans and GOP elders in Washington argued that he damaged the party's image and its long-term fiscal health.
Steele angered them by predicting the GOP wouldn't win House control last fall; Republicans did win. He also drew their ire when he criticized fellow Republicans in a book that GOP leaders didn't know he was writing until it was published.
He lashed out at critics, telling them to "get a life" and "shut up." Steele also drew fire for giving $20,000 to the GOP in the Northern Mariana Islands, and for collecting payment for his speeches.
Demands for him to resign came last year after the disclosure that RNC money was spent on a $2,000 tab at a sex-themed California night club, and when he said that the 9-year-old conflict in Afghanistan was a mistaken "war of Obama's choosing." It began under Bush.