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It has lost both houses of Congress. Its president has engineered a controversial and, by many accounts, disastrous war. And it will need more money than ever in next year’s presidential election. So what does the Grand Old Party do? It chooses a little-known party functionary, Mike Duncan, to chair the Republican National Committee, running its day-to-day operations and refining the micro-targeting the GOP needs to bolster its voter turnout on Election Day 2008. Duncan, 55, a banker from a small town in eastern Kentucky, is all but unknown outside the confines of senior Republican political circles. Unlike almost all of his predecessors — Ken Mehlman, Ed Gillespie, Haley Barbour, Lee Atwater, and Frank Fahrenkopf Jr., for example — he does not have a national profile. But he is very well known within the highest echelons of the national GOP political machinery. He’s a friend of the new Senate Republican leader, fellow Kentuckian Mitch McConnell. He was a member of the College Republicans at the same time as Karl Rove, Atwater, and BKSH & Associates Chairman Charlie Black, a leading party political strategist. Duncan is a six-time delegate to the Republican National Convention, starting in 1972, and a former RNC treasurer and general counsel. “Everybody in town says, �I know Karl,’” says Smith-Free lobbyist Jon Deuser, another Kentuckian. “Mike actually does.” Adds Don Fierce, one of Barbour’s top RNC aides: “He’s a very solid guy. He knows all the people in the party apparatus. He’s not flashy. He’s sound.” Still, in a sharp break with the past 20 years, Duncan has not been entrusted with the job alone; he’ll be sharing the bill with Mel Martinez, the first-term Florida senator and former housing and urban development secretary who came to the United States from Cuba at age 16 and lived with foster families while awaiting his parents’ arrival four years later. Martinez will be the party’s public face, the man on TV, and perhaps most importantly, a draw to the country’s burgeoning Hispanic population. “Martinez has a great message,” Duncan said during a recent interview in his RNC office, where a large elephant adorns one corner of the room. “It’s a compelling personal story. He’s someone who’s lived the American dream. . . . When we do press conferences, he speaks in Spanish.” Duncan, who has an intense but somewhat bland manner, seems to relish a life off camera, managing the guts of the RNC’s fund-raising and voter-turnout efforts, and handling the retail side of the RNC, slogging through every Republican state party’s Lincoln Day and Reagan Day dinners. “Mel, you’re going to see him on the Sunday shows,” Duncan says. “If you’re a grass-roots person, you’re likely to see me in your home state.” As to the Iraq War, he is, perhaps understandably, optimistic. “People who feel differently about Iraq,” he explains carefully, “can still support the institution.” TOO MANY COOKS? Duncan and Martinez were ratified by the party’s committee members — their formal titles are, respectively, “chairman” and “general chairman” — but the decision to choose them, and to use a dual-chairmanship model, came straight from a Rove recommendation to President George W. Bush, according to two people knowledgeable about the selection process. It’s the first time there’s been two leaders at the RNC in nearly 25 years, when Fahrenkopf, a former partner at Hogan & Hartson, became chairman. Nevada Sen. Paul Laxalt, President Ronald Reagan’s best friend, was named general chairman. But Fahrenkopf, who has led the American Gaming Association trade group since 1995, says comparisons with the Duncan/Martinez model are inappropriate. “People are saying this is like what we did, and it isn’t,” says Fahrenkopf, the RNC chairman from 1983 to 1989. Laxalt, he says, acted more as a chairman of the entire Republican Party while the party higher-ups waited for Reagan to decide whether he would run for re-election in 1984. “The minute [Reagan] made his decision, Paul moved over to run the [Reagan re-election] campaign. Then I ran the RNC totally, I also did interviews, I did �Meet the Press.’ “ Fahrenkopf and Laxalt were chosen by Reagan and rubber-stamped by the Republican national committeemen and women, a prerogative every administration takes, but which can still bother some of the rank-and-file. “When your party has the White House, you’re always subservient to the White House, and that’s not always comfortable,” says Don Fowler, whose tenure as chairman of the Democratic National Committee in the mid-1990s with Connecticut Sen. Christopher Dodd as general chairman is the closest parallel to the Duncan/Martinez split. Fowler did his share of TV appearances, he says, in part because Dodd was often preoccupied with Senate business. “When their official duties call, they have to run.” That may ultimately happen to Duncan as well. When a deadly hurricane ripped through Florida on Feb. 2, Martinez spent that weekend in his home state, the sort of senatorial emergency that would trump any RNC event. And it’s not just Martinez’s ability to keep his RNC duties on equal footing with those of his Senate job that has some Republican activists concerned. National party committeeman Curly Haugland of North Dakota, for example, went so far as to hire an independent parliamentarian, John Stackpole, who concluded last month that “it is my professional parliamentary position that any attempt to create a �general chairman’ for the RNC would be completely improper.” “I argued to the best of my ability against breaking party rules to allow for an outside designation of an additional chairman,” says Haugland, the former North Dakota state party chairman and a national committeeman for five years. “But they make this crap up as they go along, and it’s hard to get your arms around this thing.” Of course, given the weak performance of the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee in the 2006 elections, there’s plenty to be said for having a direct link between the RNC and Senate Republicans. Nor is it difficult to minimize the importance of the Hispanic vote, notwithstanding critics who point out that the Cuban-American voting block is a tiny minority of potential Hispanic voters — and one with whom other Hispanic ethnic groups do not always amicably coexist. Yet that criticism is dismissed by party insiders, who note that while Bush received 44 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2004, up from 35 percent in 2000, it plummeted to 29 percent in the congressional elections in November. “If we get [just] 30 percent of the Hispanic vote, we can’t win the White House,” predicts Republican pollster Ed Goeas of the Tarrance Group. “We need about 40 percent.” Adds veteran party strategist and Republican national committeeman David Norcross: “I understand that the Latino community is not monolithic. But I also understand that he’s the only senator whose name ends in �ez.’ “ BETWEEN IRAQ AND A HARD PLACE Duncan comes into the job with some very specific challenges. Not only does the Republican Party need a credible response to the Iraq War, but there is a very good chance that fund-raising efforts for both the RNC and DNC will be far more challenging in 2008 than in 2004. That’s because the 2008 presidential race will be so expensive — each nominee is expected to raise upwards of half a billion dollars — that they will almost certainly forgo public financing. “In 2008, the question will be, �Can the RNC and DNC continue to expand through the presidential race in a year when they are going to have presidential candidates competing with them much more vigorously than ever before for fund-raising dollars?’ ” says Anthony Corrado Jr., a political scientist at Colby College who studies money and politics. Duncan does know money. He and his wife, Joanne, own a majority stake in two community banks in rural Appalachian Kentucky. They originally bought a bank in Inez, a town of just a few hundred people, from Joanne’s father. “It was the American dream,” says Duncan, who lives in Inez when he is not in Washington. “We bought his stock, and went into debt.” Duncan’s father, who is 79, still runs a general store in Strunk, Ky., 150 miles southwest of Inez, and just two miles from the Tennessee border in the Daniel Boone National Forest. Duncan graduated from Cumberland College in nearby Williamsburg, where he was class president, then went to the University of Kentucky College of Law, graduating in 1974. He comes from a long line of Republicans, has an ancestor named Whig Duncan, and is a distant cousin of Tennessee Rep. Jimmy Duncan, whose Knoxville-based district has elected a Republican to Congress every two years since 1865. Duncan is a serious history buff — he was the first chairman of the Kentucky State Historical Society and has lived the South’s historic shift to the GOP. He also appears to have the long-term perspective of someone who understands historical ups and downs. “Some of us were there in 1976,” he told the party’s 167 national committeemen and women at the RNC’s winter meeting in January, “just as some of us were there in 1992, when Republicans were shut out of every branch of government. Those were not good times,” he added, referring to the victories of Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. “But some of us were also there in 1980 and in 1994, election nights we will never forget, when we came back from defeats stronger than ever before,” he said. “We know it can be done. We’ve done it before.” Still, given the obstacles facing the party, there are plenty of skeptics of the Duncan/Martinez team, especially with the importance of fund-raising for 2008. “I’ve known Duncan for a long time. If you need a political mechanic, he’s your guy,” says one veteran GOP operative. “But I don’t think Duncan will be a good fund-raiser when he flies to New York or L.A. or Chicago.” Martinez, he adds, won’t have enough time to travel the country soliciting funds.”He’ll have to be in Washington when they vote,” he says, adding: “Many people told [Rove] that having a dual chairmanship was a fundamental mistake.” Others, including Duncan, disagree. Duncan, who was the RNC treasurer in 2001 and 2002, says he does know the party’s top donors. Besides, adds Norcross, “when somebody says �the chairman of the RNC is on the phone,’ you take the call.”
T.R. Goldman can be contacted at [email protected].

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