In his first comments on an effort to impose a conservative purity test on Republican candidates in the 2010 election, Republican National Chairman Michael Steele stressed the counter-productive nature of litmus tests.
At the same time, Steele attempted to play down the controversy, which has focused media attention on a topic guaranteed to produce negative publicity: another rift between moderate and conservative Republicans.
"Litmus tests as a rule are not good, and I think everybody in the party appreciates that," Steele said in an interview. "I don't think that that is an appropriate approach for us to take down the road."
Steele was quick to add that "I don't think that that's the intent" of the resolution's authors, even though that is how the effort is widely perceived.
He described the resolution, which surfaced last week, as "just a discussion among the members" of the Republican National Committee "that has now trickled out into the public."
Steele said it was "premature" to predict how he would deal with the measure, which is designed to be voted upon by the RNC at its winter meeting in Hawaii next month.
"Once I see what they're finally proposing, then I will weigh in on it," said Steele. He said that his staff at party headquarters in Washington is working with the resolution's sponsors, who include Jim Bopp, a Republican committeeman from Indiana.
Steele suggested that, ultimately, the measure might not even come to a vote. Last spring, facing a similar challenge from Bopp and other RNC conservatives, he succeeded in watering down a resolution that would have labeled the opposition as "the Democrat Socialist Party."
"This could, in the end, just be a discussion, or it could be a discussion around something that will be presented to the members in January," said Steele, declining to say how he intends to finesse the issue.
"I don't know. I don't know what it is yet," he said.
Bopp's resolution, as leaked to reporters last week, calls on the party to unite against "Obama’s socialist agenda" by requiring Republican candidates to abide by at least eight of 10 conservative policy principles. Those who don't would be denied endorsements and campaign funding from the RNC.
The idea has drawn the approval of some prominent conservatives, including former House Republican leader Dick Armey of Texas, who now heads a grassroots organization that is fighting Obama and the Democrats on health care and spending issues.
At the same time, it has prompted sharp criticism from other Republicans and conservative commentators. A fresh wave of unflattering news stories and analysis has highlighted tensions within a party that, polls show, suffered deep losses in public support in recent years.
Last spring, Steele survived an early, if trivial, test of his ability to lead the RNC when he derailed a proposed resolution, promoted by Bopp, that called on Democrats to relabel themselves as "the Democrat Socialist Party."
Steele, who openly opposed the idea, managed to limit the embarrassment, but not the predictable raft of negative press. When the RNC finally gathered at National Harbor, in Steele's P.G. County, Maryland, stomping grounds, it adopted a limp version of the original proposal, demanding that Democrats "stop pushing our country toward socialism."
Commenting on the latest episode within the 168-member RNC, Steele said in the interview that there are days when he thinks "okay, guys, don't be so independent."
"I like our members to be engaged. But I also want them to be engaged and focused on what their responsibilities are as members, which is, preparing for elections, grooming candidates, raising money, organizing on the ground," he continued.
"And if you're doing that and having this debate, I'm happy. If you're just having this debate and not doing that, then I'm not so happy."