RNC chair dismisses criticism

WASHINGTON — Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele, who is already under attack for his handling of party finances and lackluster fundraising, is now facing a new threat to his leadership: an independent GOP group spearheaded by some party luminaries that will compete for campaign dollars.

Steele shrugged off calls for his resignation Monday but then handed his critics perhaps even more ammunition by suggesting he was being held to a higher standard because he is the first African-American to lead the party.

Adding to the committee's woes, RNC chief of staff Ken McKay announced his resignation Monday following a controversy over $2,000 the party spent entertaining donors at a West Hollywood sex-themed nightclub.

It was also revealed Monday that a prominent donor, Sam Fox, the former ambassador to Belgium and a strong supporter of George W. Bush, had resigned from the committee's fundraising board. The news was first reported by the newspaper and Web site Politico.

Meanwhile, GOP power brokers such as former White House counselors Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie were ramping up a new political effort, American Crossroads, dedicated to electing Republican candidates this fall and beyond. The group hopes to raise more than $50 million this year. Former RNC chairman Mike Duncan has also signed on.

Steele released a statement Monday that did not explain McKay's departure. "I want to do everything in my power to ensure that the committee uses all its resources in the best possible fashion and for this reason I have appointed Mike Leavitt Chief of Staff," Steele's statement said.

Leavitt previously was deputy chief of staff.