NEW ORLEANS – NEW ORLEANS (AP) — In damage control mode, GOP national chairman Michael Steele on Saturday sought to quell the furor over his management of the Republican National Committee by acknowledging errors and vowing to learn from them.
"I'm the first here to admit that I've made mistakes, and it's been incumbent on me to take responsibility to shoulder that burden, make the necessary changes and move on," Steele told GOP activists and party leaders, drawing a standing ovation.
"The one mistake we cannot make this November is to lose," he added, and the crowd cheered in agreement.
Saturday's speech to the Southern Republican Leadership Conference was Steele's first public appearance since the disclosure of questionable spending — including a $2,000 tab at a sex-themed California night club — resulted in top advisers cutting ties with him and North Carolina's state party chief calling for his resignation.
Normally a bombastic showman, Steele struck a contrite tone before the supportive audience in the half-full hotel ballroom. He did not address the specific complaints. And even though he acknowledged his errors, he also blamed others.
"We can't coast into the majority, nor can we assume it's a sure thing. The liberal media are looking for any possible alternative narrative to tell," Steele said. "They are looking for those distractions, and Lord knows I've provided a few." He added: "The Democrats also know that they have some explaining to do, and they'd love nothing more than for us to keep pointing fingers."
Outspoken and brassy, Steele is not a traditional buttoned-down GOP chairman and he's been a target of criticism since he was elected last year. The complaints reached a fever pitch over the past week, causing both embarrassment and distraction for a GOP looking to take advantage of a troubling political environment for Democrats ahead of this fall's midterm elections.
Still, for all the angst in the GOP over Steele, it's unlikely he will be fired. Ousting a chairman is a complicated, messy process that requires votes of two-thirds of the 168-member RNC. And, while there are both hard-core Steele opponents and fierce Steele allies, several Republican officials at the New Orleans conference said that most committee members and party chairmen simply seem to want to move on from the controversy so Republicans can focus on November.
Attended by roughly 3,000 GOP activists and party leaders, the three-day conference wrapped up Saturday with speeches by prominent Republicans considering running for president in 2012 against President Barack Obama.
Conference attendees voted in a "straw poll" for their top 2012 choice; the results were hardly predictive and meant little. Many Republicans considering a bid were left off the list while others like Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour asked that their names not be included. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney didn't attend the conference but won by a single vote over Texas Rep. Ron Paul, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
Those who gave speeches downplayed talk of the next presidential election.
"We have got to stay focused on the election of 2010. Don't worry about 2012 ... We can't wait until 2012 to start taking our country back," Barbour told the crowd. Despite that message, he sounded every bit the presidential candidate and spoke after running a slick video that promoted his role as the chairman of the Republican Governors Association.
Barbour also urged unity as the GOP wrestles with what to do about Steele and as the tea party's emergence highlights divisions among Republicans.
"The wind is at our back. How are we going to make sure it continues to fill up our sails?" Barbour said. "We stick together." He said Republicans should focus on the 80 percent of issues that unite them, not the 20 percent that may divide them. "We've got to let the things that unite us be the things that guide us," he said. "We cannot let ourselves by torn apart by the idea of purity."
Earlier, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who is looking for a political comeback, took on the Republican Party, saying that when Republicans controlled Congress and the White House before Democrats won control: "We let America down."
"Conservatism didn't fail America, conservatives failed conservatism," Santorum said, prompting huge cheers. "Let's be honest: we were guilty of more government when we were there."
Seeking to raise his national profile, Indiana Rep. Mike Pence — a darling of the party's right flank — introduced himself as "a Christian, a conservative and a Republican." And, eying another run after his 2008 failed bid, Paul told activists that "the American people have awoken" because Washington won't address the nation's fiscal crisis.
Still, for all the appearances by likely 2012 candidates and excitement over the midterms, the RNC's woes hovered over event.
"In life, you realize very quickly that you can't please everyone. But you can certainly make them all made at you at the same time," Steele said. "And that is a lesson well-learned. It is an opportunity as well. Because folks have been mad at us in the past and we have learned from that past, and we are now ready to move on to a brighter future."
(This version CORRECTS to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.)