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Clarence Page: GOP tries change, too

Here's a bonus to the election of the Republican Party's first black chairman, Michael Steele: His election really ticks off the bigots in the party's knuckle-dragger wing.

"To hell with the Republican Party!" shouts former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, a former Republican state legislator, on his Web site. Fortunately, I am confident that most of his party feels the same about him.

With enemies like Duke, the Republican Party can win a lot of friends, which it needs.

By electing Steele, a former Maryland lieutenant governor, members of the Republican National Committee, who include three representatives from each state, voted for change. Party leaders may not be settled yet on where they are going, but they don't like where they have been.

Sticking to conservative principles made the party grow in President Ronald Reagan's 1980s -- but also to shrink to what many members fear is a "regional party" in the 2006 and 2008 elections, particularly among the growing black, Hispanic and young voter populations.

Among his pluses, he's a self-avowed "pro-life Roman Catholic" who promised to draw sharp distinctions with the other party on issues that the conservative Republican base cares about most.

Steele also offers a cheerful salesmanship at a time when his party is in such desperate need of strong leadership that radio talker Rush Limbaugh and Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin have become the most talked-about voices for the party's future.

Trouble is, they galvanize as much opposition in the Democratic base as they do support among Republicans.

Steele espouses most of their beliefs, but even in his own liberal state of Maryland, where he ran a strong but unsuccessful campaign for the Senate, he has shown a keen ability to smooth ruffled feathers when he has to.

As Republican chairman he will need that talent. Today's voters are calling for more jelly makers than tree shakers.

President Barack Obama has had great success with his efforts to play down polarizing issues like race, abortion, immigration and gun control.

With Steele, the party has a candidate whose very appearance symbolizes change while he espouses a restoration of an idealized version of what the Republican party used to be: the party of Abraham Lincoln, encouraging equal rights and new opportunities, and the party of Ronald Reagan, encouraging freedom, enterprise, individual initiative and conservative "family values."

While he draws sharp barbs from the left, Steele's not conservative enough for Duke, who would have fit well in the days of the pre-Lincoln Know-Nothing Party.

Duke, among other fringe Internet-fueled firebrands of white backlash, gave backhanded praise to Obama's presidential campaign, claiming it was stirring an uprising of some sort of race war.

Quite the opposite appears happily to be the case.

When the nation is in deep economic and international security troubles, you are less likely to question the skin color or funny-sounding names of the people who offer to lead you out of it.

Steele is in a similar position as he tries to lead his party back from a political wilderness.

On the positive side, he's a good salesman, a happy warrior in the Reagan mold and a great performer on camera. On the downside, his outreach sometimes can sound more combative like a talk show host than healing like a diplomat.

But then, he's only the party chairman. He does not have to be its presidential candidate. He only has to help prepare the way.

Reach Clarence Page at cpage@tribune.com.

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