Incumbent Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele, left, talks with former RNC official Maria Cino as they participate in a debate between chairmanship candidates of the RNC, co-sponsored by Americans for Tax Reform and the Daily Caller, at the National Press Club on Jan. 3 in Washington, DC. (Getty Images)
In what one wag likened to a papal conclave -- mixed with a figure skating contest scored by Russian judges -- the Republican National Committee today will choose its chairman for the next two years.
5:19 p.m. Breaking: Reince Preibus, the Wisconsin Republican chairman, won the top spot on the Republican National Committee in the seventh round of voting.
Preibus finished with 97 votes, 12 more than he needed for victory. Saul Anuzis of Michigan finished second with 43, and Buffalo native Maria Cino finished third with 28.
5:00 p.m.: Ann Wagner, a Missouri Republican leader, withdrew from the race for RNC chairman just before the critical seventh round of voting.
Unlike outgoing RNC Chairman Michael Steele -- who endorsed Buffalo native Maria Cino when he withdrew earlier this afternoon -- Wagner did not endorse another candidate from the podium.
The seventh-round roll call just began with three candidates: front-runner Reince Priebus of Wisconsin, former Michigan GOP chairman Saul Anuzis and Cino.
4:48 p.m.:Reince Priebus, the Wisconsin GOP chairman, appears to be closing in on victory in the race for National Republican Committee chairman -- while support for Buffalo native Maria Cino slipped in the sixth round of voting.
Priebus finished the round with 80 votes, a mere five short of the total needed for victory. Saul Anuzis of Michigan, who had finished in last place in early rounds of voting, was second with 37 votes.
Cino was in third place with 34 votes, six fewer than she had in the fifth round. Ann Wagner of Missouri finished fourth in the sixth round with 17 votes.
4:32 p.m.: Sixth-round voting has begun, and it remains a four-person race. Neither Saul Anuzis nor Ann Wagner, the low-finishing candidates in the fifth round, opted to withdraw.
4:30 p.m.: The fifth round of voting proved that the power of an endorsement may not always be all that powerful.
With Michael Steele releasing his 28 votes and asking supporters to back Buffalo native Maria Cino, she gained only 11 votes. The front-runner, Reince Priebus, gained nine. And Saul Anuzis, the last-place finisher in each previous round, gained eight.
Between rounds, Anuzis met with Ann Wagner, who was last in the fifth round with 28 votes. Meanwhile, the word is that the forces of House Speaker John Boehner are still pressing hard for Cino.
4:17 p.m.: Reince Priebus of Wisconsin gained nine votes in wake of Michael Steele's departure from the race, while Buffalo's Maria Cino -- whom Steele endorsed -- gained 11.
In the fifth round of voting, Priebus remained in the lead with 67 votes, 18 shy of the total needed for victory. Cino was second with 40, followed by Saul Anuzis of Michigan with 32 and Ann Wagner of Missouri with 28.
3:59 p.m. Fifth round voting has begun, and it will surely be the first in some time to show major movement, given Michael Steele's departure from the race and his endorsement of Buffalo's Maria Cino.
Steele delivered a graceful departure, acknowledging his tenure had created tensions at the RNC.
"This storm, you cannot allow to continue," he said.
Committee members gave Steele a standing ovation as he departed with the words: "And now I exit, stage right."
Steele's departure could have an unpredictable impact on the race. It's uncertain that his voters will move in mass to Cino, and hard to predict how other committee members may be swayed by his endorsement.
Strangely, Steele left the stage without ever explaining why he endorsed Cino.
3:53 p.m.: BREAKING: Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele just took to the podium and withdrew from the race -- and urged his supporters to support Buffalo's Maria Cino for the chairmanship.
"I am withdrawing because the party is ready for something different," Steele said.
3:40 p.m.: Maria Cino edged into second place in the race for Republican chairman in fourth-round voting.
Reince Priebus of Wisconsin continued to lead, and gained four votes, to 58. Cino gained one vote, to 29, but she was tightly bunched with the rest of the field.
Current RNC Chairman Michael Steele and Ann Wagner were tied at 28, with Saul Anuzis of Michigan at 24.
Looks like a long afternoon ahead of us here.
3:28 p.m.: Fourth round voting has begun, and still none of the five candidates have dropped out.
3:08 p.m. Buffalo's Maria Cino fell to fourth place in third-round voting for Republican National Committee chairman.
Reince Preibus of Wisconsin had 54 votes in the third round, followed by current RNC Chairman Michael Steele with 33. Ann Wagner of Missouri edged ahead of Cino with 32 votes. Cino finished with 28, with Saul Anuzis of Michigan finishing with 21.
Cino's continued loss of votes is not a good sign for her. But even more notable are two trends: Priebus is gaining votes very slowly and does not have the strong momentum he would want at this point. And Steele is holding far more votes than had been expected.
This bodes for a long race, of many ballots -- unless some of the candidates opt to drop out, perhaps after cutting deals with stronger candidates.
2:50 p.m.: Third round voting has just begun and it is clear that the Republican National Committee members are getting tired of the dragged-out nature of the proceedings. By voice vote, they just decided to shorten the time between votes from 20 minutes to 10 minutes.
That means the candidates and their supporters will have half as much time between votes to try to swing committee members to their side. And it means I will be updating this blog more frequently.
2:27 p.m.: Buffalo's Maria Cino lost two votes in the second round of voting, finishing with 30.
Reince Priebus of Wisconsin added seven votes to his total, moving up to 52. Current RNC Chairman Michael Steele lost seven votes, finishing the second round with 37.
Ann Wagner of Missouri gained four votes: she got 27 votes in the second round. Saul Anuzis of Michigan lost two votes and trailed the pack with 22 in the second round.
2:08 p.m.: Mario Cino's campaign manager, Chad Kolton, conceded he's surprised and pleased with the Buffalo native's strong first-round showing in the race for Republican chairman.
Still, he remained cautious.
"Everybody ought to take the first ballot with a grain of salt," he said.
Kolton also said he does not expect any of the five candidates to drop out until at least the third round.
1:46 p.m. Buffalo's Maria Cino finished a strong and unexpected third in the first round of balloting for Republican National Committee chair.
Cino picked up 32 votes. Wisconsin GOP Chairman Reince Priebus led with 45 votes, followed by current national party Chairman Michael Steele with 44. Saul Anuzis of Michigan trailed badly with 24, as did Ann Wagner of Missouri, who recorded 23 votes.
Steele's strong showing is widely seen as a symbolic "thank-you" for his two years of service on the committee. His total is expected to fall in the next round.
Now the intrigue begins. Among the questions: Where will Steele's supporters go? And will either Anuzis or Wagner drop out before the next round of voting?
1:07 p.m.: Ohio Republican Chairman Kevin DeWine just placed Maria Cino's name into nomination for Republican National Committee chairman.
Noting the party faces "daunting challenges," such as eliminating a $20 million debt and preparing to run a presidential campaign of Democrat Barack Obama, DeWine said: "This is the time for a quiet, effective, experienced chairman. I am confident that Maria Cino is that person."
DeWine said Cino is by far the most prepared candidate, having worked in and around the RNC for nearly 30 years and having helped run two successful GOP presidential campaigns, the 2000 and 2004 races of George W. Bush.
New York State Republican Chair Ed Cox was among those seconding Cino's nomination. Recounting her experience and noting that she "ran a great convention" for the party in 2008, Cox urged committee members to vote for "Maria Cino from gritty Buffalo" for party chairman.
The first round of voting for GOP chairman is expected to begin shortly.
11:23 a.m.: Maria Cino said this morning that she's excited and energized as members of the Republican National Committee gather to choose the party's new chairman.
"We feel pretty good," said Cino, one of five candidates for the post. "We had a great week. Some key people announced their support, such as Speaker Boehner, which was very nice."
House Speaker John Boehner endorsed Cino on Wednesday, and Cino supporters hope that will give her candidacy a big boost.
The committee is meeting now, handling procedural business. Committee members now say they don't expect the first vote for chairman to come until about 1 p.m.
Given the muliple-ballot nature of the race, "the goal should be to be everybody's
second choice," said Erie County Republican Chairman Nick Langworthy (pictured at right), who traveled to the RNC winter meeting to support Cino.
10:57 a.m.: The 168 committee members are gathering now in a vast conference room at National Harbor, a sprawling hotel and convention center alongside the Potomac River in Maryland, just outside of Washington D.C. I am in the press section, and will be here all day -- and perhaps into the night -- live blogging the race.
One of the candidates for GOP chairman is North Buffalo's own Maria Cino, a longtime Republican politico who ran the National Republican Congressional Committee when the GOP won control of the House in 1994.
But the favorite remains Reince Priebus, the Wisconsin GOP chair who led his party to a landslide win last November.
And the unfavorite remains Michael S. Steele, the headline-grabbing chairman for the past two years who has left the party with a $20 million debt: committee members said they see no way in which Steele can win re-election.
Other candidates are Saul Anuzis, a former Michigan party chair, and Ann Wagner, a longtime GOP activist from Missouri.
The comparison to a papal conclave comes from the numerous rounds of secret balloting that usually take place before any one candidate grabs the 85 votes needed to win. And the committee wins comparison to Russian figure skating judges just because its decisions can be very difficult to handicap.
I will blog at the end of each round of balloting, with the first vote expected to come around noon or slightly earlier.
With 43 public supporters, Priebus -- who has won backing from both longtime GOP leaders and tea party activists -- is clearly ahead.
But with nearly a third of the national committee members being women, a strong female candidate could emerge, even though both Cino and Wagner have lagged in the effort to garner public supporters.
Cino has some big names behind her -- most notably House Speaker John Boehner and former Vice President Dick Cheney.
This has led her to be branded the establishment candidate. And that label, combined with her recent work as a lobbyist for the Pfizer drug conglomerate, have kept her in the back of the pack so far, with about a dozen public supporters.