The Republican National Committee meets in Washington D.C. next weekend to choose the national chairman. Six declared Republicans seek the chairmanship: Michigan Republican Party Chairman Saul Anuzis, former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, South Carolina Republican Party Chairman Katon Dawson, incumbent RNC Chairman Mike Duncan, former Maryland Lieutenant Governor Michael Steele, and former Tennessee Republican Party Chairman Chip Saltsman. Saltsman's campaign has vanished: a disappearing trick performed by the "Barack the Magic Negro" satire controversy.

As the incumbent, Duncan wields institutional power; Blackwell has emerged popular among social conservative interests groups; Steele is perceived as the best spokesman; Anuzis is the quirky guy; and one observer described Dawson as a hybrid of Lee Atwater and Haley Barbour. Candidates for RNC chairman seek to claim Barbour, a former chairman and champion of the 1994 Republican Revolution, just as Republican presidential candidates sought to claim former President Ronald Reagan.

Mississippi has three votes for chairman. Republican National Committeeman Henry Barbour and Mississippi Chairman Brad White are voting for Dawson of South Carolina. Mississippi's Republican National Committeewoman Cindy Phillips of Madison is supporting Duncan.

Of the 168 RNC members, only a few have publicly endorsed a candidate. The incumbent Duncan is still well short of the required 85 votes to win. In 1993, Haley Barbour was elected on the third round of balloting. At publication, tallies at YourRNC.com showed Duncan leading with 23 endorsements, Anuzis and Steele in second with 14 pledges each, Dawson with 13 commitments and Blackwell with 12 supporters.

The Duncan campaign appears to have a strategy of claiming Haley Barbour's support. In an e-mail to RNC members, national co-chair Jo Ann Davidson seemed to describe Duncan as the second coming of Barbour who would "resurrect the Barbour legacy in laser focus on redistricting and providing the financial resources necessary for success." When RNC member Robert Bennett of Ohio endorsed Duncan he quoted remarks by Barbour in a recent USA Today interview and seemed to imply Governor Barbour supports Duncan. In fact, Governor Barbour said he's "not for anybody or against anybody" and Bennett neglected to say that while Barbour said Duncan performed well, Barbour also said "the question is the symbolism" if the RNC maintains the status quo.

Henry Barbour elaborated to this column his uncle's meaning of symbolism, "It's not about whose fault it is, it's about moving forward. Our leadership in congress did not change. If we do not change the leadership of the party, what does that say to the electorate? It says we didn't hear you."

Henry Barbour continued, "I like Mike Duncan personally, but this can't be about personal friendships. It's about getting back on the right track. We've got to make a change: a real change and the perception of change. We can't do that with the same chairman. The symbolism and the substance are very important. After a season of catastrophic defeat, you might like your coach and he might be a good coach, but to keep him invites further disaster."

White, who also endorsed Dawson, had this to say of the Duncan campaign.  "It's a simple question of effectiveness," White said.  "Mike Duncan, while a fine person, can no longer be effective.  Perception alone has killed him.  Let there be no mistake, we are at war over the heart and soul of America.  The Republican Party must elect a leader who can communicate our message to the American people in a manner that will resonate.  Duncan has proven he cannot do that," said White.

I spoke to a Mississippi Republican who has successfully managed competitive races around the country. He supports Duncan and said, "You wouldn't turn your 100 million dollar business and dozens of employees and operations in multiple states over to someone who has never run a business before. We need an operational leader at the helm. Someone who is a proven fundraiser, a proven manager of staff and resources. It takes hard work and smart management to raise tens of millions of dollars and spend it wisely."

Another Republican operative in Washington DC with Mississippi ties disagrees, "RNC members will get tossed by the local GOP activists if they re-elect the current chairman after the dismal results we have seen. No one is saying it's 'Mike Duncan's fault,' but that the perception would be awful for a Party that needs to show the American electorate we're serious about change. Without that, we are much slower to a comeback."

The chairman's election next weekend will determine the tactical and operational direction of the national Republican party. "It's no secret that the Republican brand has real problems," Henry Barbour said, "and I can't imagine going back to our grassroots and telling them that the National Committee decided to keep our same leadership."

Brian Perry of Jackson, a former congressional aide, is a partner in a public affairs firm. Reach him at reasonablyright@brianperry.ms.