World and Nation

In Interview, Gop Chairman Strays From Party on Abortion

This was supposed to be the week that Michael Steele, the beleaguered new national Republican Party chairman, got his groove on, as he might put it: From filling vacancies left by the mass-firing he conducted upon taking office to issuing 100-day plans on how to make the Republican Party competitive on everything from fundraising to the Internet.

But no.

On Thursday Steele found himself yet again explaining what he had meant to say, this time after a lively interview with GQ in which he seemed to suggest, among other things, that women should have the right to decide whether to have an abortion. “I think that’s an individual choice,” he said.

A moment later, he appeared to clarify his remarks, saying that abortion policy should be decided by the states. “The states should make that choice,” he said. “That’s what the choice is. The individual choice rests in the states. Let them decide.” After the interview appeared online on Thursday, he issued a statement seeking to make clear that he is an opponent of abortion rights.

The interview — in which Steele also appeared to stray from the view of many conservatives on homosexuality while offering a steady patter of edgy jokes and irreverent observations — rippled through Republican circles as soon it was posted on GQ’s Web site Thursday morning. If the interview, conducted several weeks ago, fueled the existing concern among party leaders, it was hardly a surprise after four weeks in which Steele had left many Republicans anxious about their new chairman. He had tangled with Rush Limbaugh, the conservative talk show host, and become the target of mirthful parodies by Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and “Saturday Night Live” over his call to apply the party’s principles to “urban-suburban hip-hop settings.”

It appears highly unlikely that there would be any serious move to recall Steele, who is barely two months into a two-year job. The political repercussions of replacing the party’s first African-American chairman would be too severe, several Republican leaders said, and there are no obvious candidates ready to take the job.

Nonetheless, there were expressions of anguish over what many Republicans described as Steele’s growing pains as he takes on the role of leader of a party struggling to find its way after its defeat in the November elections. This latest episode seems likely to further diminish his conservative credentials, undercutting his ability to present his case for his party and raise money.

“I think the job of chairman is to elect Republicans and beat Democrats,” said Chip Saltsman of Tennessee, who was one of Steele’s opponents for the job. “If anything, what Michael did was get away from the primary directive of being chairman. Right now, it’s a turbulent time for him and everybody is coming at him.”

Steele declined a request for an interview. His aides dismissed the latest problems, and said they would be overtaken in the days ahead as he names top aides and begins talking about what he is doing to move forward.