As they campaigned together across Virginia on Thursday and Friday, Republican National Committee Chairman Michael S. Steele praised Robert F. McDonnell, the state's GOP gubernatorial candidate, as an innovative leader.
McDonnell was just as enthusiastic.
"Thank you to my largest donor, Michael Steele," he told a crowd outside a train depot in Culpeper on Friday, referring to the millions that the RNC has poured into the contest. And seeming to realize the potential double meaning of his words as Steele's 6-foot-4 frame towered over everyone, McDonnell joked, "And also my tallest."
Steele smiled at the rhetorical embrace by McDonnell, who polls show is leading in Tuesday's contest against Democrat R. Creigh Deeds — a reality that could mean as much to Steele as if he were the candidate himself.
Once heavily embattled because of a series of gaffes that infuriated his fellow Republicans, Steele is already taking steps to cast strong showings in Tuesday's races in New Jersey, Virginia and New York as signs of both a Republican comeback and his own successful leadership.
The chairman didn't miss a beat Saturday when a Republican candidate in New York state, Assemblywoman Dede Scozzafava, dropped out of the race in the state's 23rd Congressional District, bowing to Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman. In a statement, Steele said he "respects" Scozzafava's decision, then noted that the RNC would endorse Hoffman.
His statement did not address that Scozzafava's decision was a reflection of the internal struggles within the party as it faces pressures from its more conservative wing.
In a party memo Wednesday, Steele touted the strong fundraising year that allowed his committee to pump $13 million for television advertising and other expenses into the two governor's races — in Virginia and New Jersey. More than $9 million was spent in Virginia.
Fundraising has turned out to be a major strength for Steele. Overall the committee has raised more than $68 million this year, about $6 million more than Democrats. It's an unexpected turn for the party's first black chairman, who campaigned on a pledge that he would help rebrand a wounded GOP, get back members who strayed in 2008 and bring in more minorities.
But beyond finances, there are some in the party who question whether the GOP and Steele in particular are playing a major role in whatever momentum has emerged.
In an interview as he campaigned Friday, Steele rejected the suggestions that the party's recent energy, including the August protests over Democratic health-care proposals, had emerged with little help from the GOP's official leadership. "The party's doing very well. They told me that health care was done; by Aug. 1 the president would have a bill on his desk," Steele said. "I thought otherwise. I spoke to that. I worked with the [Republican] leadership in Congress, and we put out a number of things that slowed the train down."
Democrats said any successes for GOP candidates in Virginia and New Jersey will reflect local dynamics more than a national Republican resurgence. They point to a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll showing that only 20 percent of Americans now identify themselves as Republicans.
Steele is "living in an alternative universe," said Brad Woodhouse, a spokesman for the Democratic National Committee.
"This has been a disastrous year for Republicans," he added. "They have lost every single legislative battle in Congress. . . . And on Tuesday — because they are in such poor shape — they need a clean sweep, or they will have a lot of explaining to do."
Countered Steele: "People look at national polls and say only 25 percent of the people identify as Republicans, but we're going to win in Virginia, we're going to win in New Jersey, in my opinion, and a Republican will likely win in New York."
Privately, some GOP strategists challenge Steele's judgment. Some Capitol Hill Republicans believed his calling Obama's Nobel Prize "unfortunate" was over the top. Some party operatives also mocked the debut last month of the RNC's redesigned Web site, in which Steele's blog entries first appeared under the title "What Up" before it was revised to "Change the Game."
"Virginia will go to McDonnell because he connected with voters," said a top party strategist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "It's two steps backward and one step forward with the RNC. When Steele talks, the media eagerly listen while we all cringe for fear he'll shoot himself in the foot again."
Steele knows he still has critics and acknowledges that his work in rebranding the GOP is far from finished. He noted his appearances this year in Harlem and at Howard University — hardly Republican bastions. He was also at the White House last week when President Obama presented 90-year-old former Massachusetts senator Edward W. Brooke with the Congressional Gold Medal. Brooke, a Republican, was the first African American elected to the Senate by popular vote.
Wrestling with race comes with the territory for Steele. Some of the "tea party" activists who have rallied against Obama, for example, have been cast as racist, a charge Steele rejects.
"This is a baby-step process," he said. "Just because we have a black president doesn't mean all the ills of the black community are solved. Similarly, a black chairman doesn't mean everybody is going to be a Republican. It doesn't work that way."
For now, Steele is defining his success based on the races Tuesday — and the money he's helped bring in.
"He's caught his stride and is doing well," said Saul Anuzis, the former head of the Michigan Republican Party who lost in the chairman's race to Steele and now advises him. "He has heavily invested in both of these races and is spending a lot of time in them. I know this is his No. 1 priority."