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Despite Priebus Lead, RNC Election Still Highly Contested

RNC candidates debate

Jan. 3: RNC chairman candidates Reince Priebus, left, current chairman Michael Steele, Maria Cino, Saul Anuzis and Ann Wagner debate in Washington.AFP

Members of the Republican National Committee will elect a new chairman Friday, and while incumbent Michael Steele may be struggling in his reelection bid, one of his longtime allies remains the front-runner.

Even so, the winner in the five-way race to lead the national party as the crucial 2012 fundraising season begins is anybody’s guess.

Steele, the current RNC chairman, has been no stranger to controversy during his term, yet on the morning of the election, he cannot be completely counted out.

Steele was widely criticized for giving paid speeches during his term, embarking on a book tour and sitting at the helm when RNC members brought prospective donors to a risqué nightclub in Los Angeles. Steele was not present at the club during the now infamous strip club incident.

But Reince Priebus, a former member of Steele's inner circle who also served as the committee's general counsel, has emerged as the favorite in the race.

"Reince definitely has some momentum going into election day," said longtime Massachusetts committeeman Ron Kaufman. "He just picked up the support of [New Hampshire GOP Chairman] John Sununu, that's a big deal."

Yet the Wisconsin committeeman also has his critics.

"All the things Steele got in the most trouble for -- the book tour, the paid speaking engagements … as general counsel, Priebus signed off on all that stuff,” ," said one former insider who worked at the RNC during Steele's toughest days.

But despite his ties to Steele, Priebus still has the most public commitments from RNC members.

Henry Barbour, a committeeman from Mississippi and nephew of Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, is one of Priebus' biggest supporters. Barbour suggests it's time for a change within the RNC and that Steele's worst decisions cannot simply be laid at the feet of Priebus.

"In the end, the chairman makes his own final decisions," said Barbour.

Other influential members are much more blunt. "I'll be doing whatever it takes to keep Michael Steele from getting elected," one member said on the condition of anonymity.

There are five candidates in total and the voting itself is a complicated process. The committee consists of 168 members and in order to claim the chair a candidate must receive at least 85 votes, which usually takes at least two or three rounds.

The general consensus is that Steele will go out to an early lead in the first round, yet not have the requisite 85 votes to seal the deal. After that it gets very hazy and could end up being a long day of horse trading in the hallways between votes.

Saul Anuzis, a committeeman from Michigan has emerged as a viable threat if Steele and Priebus cancel each other out in the early rounds. While Maria Cino, a former Bush administration official, has the backing of Speaker of the House John Boener. Ann Wagner, a Missouri GOP player and former ambassador to Luxemborg is also in the mix.

Each candidate had his or her last chance to convince the members during a candidate forum for RNC members only on Thursday night. After the forum a few RNC members told Fox News, Priebus was still in a strong position going into Friday's vote.

"But you never can tell until we see how the first couple rounds shake out," cautioned one insider.