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GOP Chair's Abortion Comments May Prove Costly

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Republican Party Chairman Michael Steele is in hot water again. Last month, he picked a fight with radio host and Republican icon Rush Limbaugh. Now, he has angered an even more formidable force in the party, the pro-life establishment. NPR's Julie Rovner examines whether Steele can survive his latest stumble.

JULIE ROVNER: Steele is under fire for comments he made in an interview with GQ magazine. It was posted on the publication's Web site last night. In the interview, Steele said he thinks that abortion is quote, an individual choice. Pressed by the interviewer to confirm that, Steele replied, yeah, absolutely. By this morning, the chairman was desperately trying to back pedal: I am pro-life. Always have been, always will be, he said in a written statement released through the Republican National Committee. Both he and the RNC declined to respond on tape today, but the damage was already done.

Ms. JUDY BROWN (President, American Life League): I'm appalled, of course, at one level. But on another level, I'm not at all surprised because we've never really suspected that Mr. Steele was pro-life to begin with.

ROVNER: Judy Brown is president of the American Life League, an anti-abortion rights group. Brown says she suspects that this latest Steele uproar will result in a lot of debate, but she doubts it will cost him his job because, she says, the Republican Party has for awhile been trying to separate itself from its pro-life supporters.

Ms. BROWN: It's one thing to have a beautiful statement in the party platform, but it's quite another to watch the way they actually behave. And the Republican Party - for the most part - is not really that committed to protecting children in the womb.

ROVNER: Republican strategist and former congressman Vin Webber disagrees with Brown. He does think Steele is committed to the anti-abortion cause.

Mr. VIN WEBBER (Republican Strategist): Michael is an observant Catholic and a genuine pro-lifer. He answered the question awkwardly from a standpoint of pro-lifers. But I don't think that it's going to, sort of, tip the house over, if you will.

ROVNER: But while Webber doesn't think the abortion spat alone will cost Steele his position, he stops short of saying the new chairman's job is safe.

Mr. WEBBER: I have been talking to a lot of people who are raising serious questions about his chairmanship, and he's got to right the ship very quickly. I am supportive of him, I'd like to be helpful to him, but a lot of people are worried.

ROVNER: Webber says the problem is not what's going on in public, but what's going on in the back offices of the RNC. Steele fired the existing staff when he took over and has been criticized for being slow to replace them. There's still no top fundraiser, and he didn't name a chief of staff until this week. Meanwhile, says Webber, the party badly needs to catch up to Democrats in terms of technology and fundraising.

Mr. WEBBER: And I'm not suggesting that Michael Steele is ignoring those things but his critics, and concerned Republicans around the country, look at the gaffes that we are reporting, whether it's Rush Limbaugh or the abortion issue, and they think why is he doing that when he should be worrying about raising money and getting us competitive organizationally?

ROVNER: Steele, the Party's first African-American leader, was far from a consensus pick to head an opposition party out of power and in seeming disarray. He won the RNC job in January after six separate rounds of balloting. And in a bad omen for him today, there was no rush of RNC members publicly coming to his defense.

Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.