DNC chair faces $15M debt; fight for RNC boss

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CHICAGO (AP) -- The Democratic Party faces a smooth transition as President-elect Barack Obama essentially chooses the next national chairman whose initial task will be retiring a $15 million debt. A fight is ensuing on the Republican side as the losing party searches for a new identity - and perhaps a new leader.

Current Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean plans to step down when his four-year term expires in January; he had long vowed to serve only one term. His GOP counterpart, Mike Duncan, has indicated he's considering competing for a second two-year term though several Republicans are maneuvering to challenge him.

Traditionally, the president selects the national chairman of his own party, and Obama is expected to do so by picking from among his most loyal supporters.

Mentioned as possible candidates are Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill and Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, but they also may be under consideration for Obama administration positions. Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine said Wednesday he's not interested in the DNC job.

It's also possible Obama could select one of his closest political operatives as President Bush did after his 2004 re-election when he installed his former campaign manager Ken Mehlman as chairman.

Obama's team sent a fundraising appeal to backers on Wednesday seeking help in retiring the DNC's debt. The DNC debt includes a $10 million line of credit that the DNC took out in October to help the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee as more House and Senate races became competitive.

For its part, the Republican National Committee tapped a $5 million line of credit in late October as part of a renewed effort to help GOP senators facing re-election difficulties.

The last time the DNC showed a postelection debt was 2002, when it reported being $1.3 million in the red. If Obama, who raised more than $640 million, emerges with money in the bank, he could transfer any sum from his campaign account to the DNC.

"We'll get to work transforming this country. But first, we need to take care of the DNC," Obama campaign manager David Plouffe in the appeal. "It took unprecedented resources to staff up all 50 states, train field organizers, and build the technology to reach as many swing voters as possible."

With Democrats controlling the White House and Congress, the new DNC chairman will be responsible for reinforcing the White House message, preparing for the 2010 midterm elections and raising money. The Republican National Committee head will be expected to take the lead in responding to the Democratic administration as well as rebuilding a party left in tatters after sweeping defeats in two straight elections.

On the GOP side, there's no clear party standard-bearer when Bush leaves office in January. That means there is no shortage of potential candidates even though GOP officials say Duncan is inclined to seek another term. He has said he'll make up his mind over the next two months if he runs for re-election.

Several Republicans are publicly or privately expressing an interest in the job. Others are said to be considering competing for the post or are being drafted by RNC faithful to campaign for the chairmanship.

Among them are state party chairman, including Katon Dawson in South Carolina, Saul Anuzis in Michigan and Jim Greer in Florida; former officeholders like Rep. Jim Nussle of Iowa, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia and ex-Lt. Gov. Michael Steele of Maryland; and party operatives like Chip Saltsman, who was campaign manager for Mike Huckabee's presidential campaign.

Most were heading to Miami this week to make the rounds at the Republican Governors Association meeting.

Anuzis formally announced his intentions on Wednesday in an e-mail to supporters, saying he was running for chairman "in an effort to rebuild our party." He said: "It is time to look at the fundamentals and stop focusing only on the tactics."

Shortly thereafter, Michigan Republican National Committeeman Chuck Yob said he may run as well.

Other likely candidates are doing little to squelch the chatter though their actions reflect their intentions. "I am certainly encouraged by the conversations I've had," Dawson says. He's invited RNC members from across the country to the state this weekend to examine what went right and what went wrong in last week's election.

Under RNC rules, candidates have to announce they are running and then must be nominated and secure the support of two RNC members in each of three states. The RNC's 168 members will vote at its winter meeting early next year. It takes a majority to elect a chairman.


Associated Press Writers Jim Kuhnhenn in Washington, Robert Lewis in Richmond, Va., and Kathy Barks Hoffman in Lansing, Mich., contributed to this report.

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