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Michael Steele out as Republican Party chair; Reince Priebus elected

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In the end, Michael Steele’s prospects for a second term as chairman of the Republican National Committee were done in by debt.

Daunted by some $20 million in financial obligations accumulated during the two years of Mr. Steele’s tenure, RNC members pitched Mr. Steele over the side on Friday, electing in his stead Reince Priebus to lead the party toward the 2012 presidential elections.

Mr. Priebus, chairman of the Wisconsin Republican Party, was the frontrunner entering Friday’s vote. A former member of Steele’s inner circle, Priebus had to fend off questions about what he knew of the RNC’s poor financial condition. But Priebus is well known to RNC members and represented something of a safe consensus choice.

RELATED: Michael Steele's top 10 gaffes

Party insiders had been surprised that Steele decided to bid for a second term as chairman. But by midafternoon on Friday, it was clear that a second term was not to be, as Steele’s support dwindled ballot by ballot. Foreseeing his inevitable defeat, Steele stepped aside after four rounds of voting at Friday’s RNC meeting at the National Harbor resort outside Washington.

“I really thank you for the chairmanship of this party and the two years I have had, and at this time I will step aside for others to leave,” said Steele to the assembled RNC members.

For Priebus, the good news is that it may be easy for them to look good in comparison to Steele – to party insiders, at least. While the former Maryland lieutenant governor is telegenic and a combative and popular presence on cable news shows, he did not raise large sums of money for the party committee during what was a boom time for Republican political cash in general.

Steele’s rejoinder to this charge has been that he helped lead the party to victory in the 2010 midterm elections.

“Despite the difficulties, we won,” he repeated on Friday during his withdrawal announcement.

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Now the GOP faces a 2012 election in which Democrats presumably will be fired up to help President Obama hold the White House. Democratic voter enthusiasm will be up and Democratic contributors will open their checkbooks. Yet the RNC must wipe out debt before building its campaign treasury for the coming fight.

For Priebus, that’s the bad news – he starts his tenure in a hole, looking up. The first order of business is to rebuild relationships with big donors and set in place a plan to bring the RNC books back into the black.

For Steele, losing his RNC post paradoxically may prove to be something of a liberation. Shed of administrative responsibilities, he can be himself – which is to say, he can be pungent and stinging – on television as often as he wants. While party leaders sometimes cringed at his gaffes, Steele undeniably is a compelling television presence. The high-profile job of RNC chairman thus may prove to be a jumping-off point for the lucrative world of political commentary.

RELATED: Michael Steele's top 10 gaffes

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