WASHINGTON (Reuters) - When Republican Party insiders pick a new leader on Friday, he will have to be more than just a nuts-and-bolts manager by rallying the faithful after two disastrous elections that transformed U.S. politics.
With Democrats now in control of the White House, Congress and many states, the Republican National Committee chairman will also have to close the gap with foes who exploited the Internet for communications and fundraising.
And he will have to find a way to counter a charismatic Democratic president who enjoys wide public support, coming on the heels of an unpopular Republican president.
Republicans also say they must appeal to racial minorities, young voters and other groups that have shunned the party in recent years.
But few suggest the party should soften its conservative philosophy or reexamine its core beliefs in limited government and strong national defense.
“My mother always told me it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it that counts,” said Ron Kaufman, an RNC member from Massachusetts who backs the current chairman, Mike Duncan. “We have not done a good job of communicating to people of all kinds who we are and what we stand for.”
Friday’s vote will be the first contested RNC leadership race since 1997, before George W. Bush won the White House.
Less than two weeks after Barack Obama became the first black U.S. president, the Republican Party could elect its first black chairman — former Maryland Lieutenant Governor Michael Steele or former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell.
A black leader could help counter the perception that the Republican appeal is limited to the base of white Southern men.
A racial misstep may have torpedoed the candidacy of former Tennessee state party chairman Chip Saltsman, who in December circulated a parody song called “Barack the Magic Negro.”
Saltsman has no public endorsements from the 168 voting RNC members and observers say he might lack enough support to appear on the ballot.
Another candidate, South Carolina state chairman Katon Dawson, resigned from a whites-only country club in September.
Rather than focusing on race, committee members are more likely to back a candidate who they think can best master such basics as raising money, recruiting candidates and crafting a message, said Republican strategist Scott Reed.
The winner will be under intense pressure to deliver gains in the 2010 congressional elections.
That is considered a strength of current chairman Duncan, who has been in charge since January 2007.
Duncan has the most public endorsements of any candidate but is still far short of the 85 needed for victory.
His low-key nature could prove to be a liability among those seeking charisma. When Duncan announced he wanted to keep the job, The New York Times mistakenly ran a photo of a rival, Michigan party chairman Saul Anuzis.
And Duncan’s incumbent status in a year Republicans suffered devastating losses could also hurt.
“It’s time to change the perception of the Republican Party,” said Anuzis backer David All, a political consultant.
Party members say they have one powerful force on their side — human nature.
Just as Republicans overreached when they controlled both the White House and Congress, Obama and congressional Democrats are likely to incur a voter backlash by pushing the country too far to the left, they say.
“You may have me drug-tested but I’m relatively upbeat,” Kaufman said. “If we stay to our basics and tend to our knitting and stick up for what we believe in, I believe history says in the off-year election we’ll do well.”
Editing by Patricia Zengerle and John O'Callaghan