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SALT LAKE CITY -- The top man for the Republican party is already setting his sights on next year's election. Michael Steele, chair of the national Republican Party, spoke to Utahns Friday and said they should target Congressman Jim Matheson, in particular.
Matheson's seat in Congress has long been a thorn in the side of Utah Republicans and is symbolic of frustration among the party faithful right now. But some of that frustration is with the GOP itself--what Steele calls "a work in progress."
At a town hall meeting, Steele went to the heart of the matter when it comes to Matheson. The campaign theme expected next year, he said, is: A vote to re-elect Matheson is like a vote for liberal Nancy Pelosi.
"We get it. We understand and appreciate that if the choice is between Nancy Pelosi and us, where are you going to end up? Because that's really what this is about right now," Steele said.
The problem is the party doesn't have a candidate to run against Matheson yet. But Steele told the crowd that Republican principals and community involvement will bring viable candidates forward.
"It's not about one person, necessarily. That leadership will emerge," Steele said. "It's about the broader sense of who we are and what we believe. That's the fight, as national chairman, I want you to be involved with every day."
As a Republican-dominated state, Gov. Gary Herbert said Utah could be an example to the rest of the nation. But Steele acknowledged infighting and problems within the party. It's a frustration that was voiced by a Vernal woman Friday.
"I'm a republican, and I've been embarrassed to be a republican lately," Joni Crane said. "I want to know how we can find those Lincolns when we, as a party, rip them apart and we, as a party, have infighting just like the Democrats have now."
Steele said the comment addresses a larger, more common question of Republican leadership: Who will emerge, and how will it happen?
"What the party needs right now is to focus on its ability to connect with the American people, to reach out and embrace the diversity that defines this country," Steele said. "I liken it to the earth moving beneath our feet. We're either going to keep up with it, or we're going to get swept away by it."
Steele said he's eager to facilitate the retooling of the party whether he's that central figurehead or not.