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Republicans line up on opposite sides over latest Steele controversy

By the CNN Wire Staff
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Steele faces backlash for Obama comments
  • NEW: GOP Sen. Jim Demint calls for Steele to apologize
  • GOP senators lambaste RNC Chairman Michael Steele over comments on Afghanistan war
  • Conservative Republican Rep. Ron Paul defends Steele
  • Issue highlights rift in party

Washington (CNN) -- Republicans lined up on opposite sides Sunday over comments by the chairman of the Republican National Committee that the Afghanistan war launched by former President George W. Bush was "of (President Barack) Obama's choosing" and may be unwinnable.

Speaking from Afghanistan, GOP Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina lambasted Michael Steele for the comments, which McCain called "wildly inaccurate" and Graham characterized as "uninformed, unnecessary, unwise, untimely," while follow Republican Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina said Steele should apologize to the military.

However, conservative GOP Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, in a statement to CNN, supported Steele and said the RNC chairman's characterization of the war was correct.

"He is guiding the party in the right direction and we (the GOP) are on the verge of victory this fall," said Paul, who mounted an unsuccessful bid for the GOP presidential nomination in 2008. "Chairman Steele should not back off. He is giving the country, especially young people, hope as he speaks truth about this war."

Video: DNC chairman on Steele
Video: Paul praises Steele's comments

In comments at a Republican fundraiser in Connecticut Thursday, a YouTube video shows the RNC chairman declaring of the war in Afghanistan, "This was a war of Obama's choosing."

"This is not something the United States actively prosecuted or wanted to engage in," he added.

Steele has stepped back from his original comments by emphasizing his support for the war.

"The stakes are too high for us to accept anything but success in Afghanistan," Steele said in a statement intended to clarify his controversial comments.

It may be too late for him. Prominent Republican voices are calling for Steele's resignation, including Liz Cheney, a former State Department official and the daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney; Weekly Standard editor William Kristol and former South Carolina GOP chairman Katon Dawson, who finished second to Steele in the RNC chairman's race last year.

Both McCain and Graham questioned Steele's ability to keep his job, but said it was up to Steele and the RNC to make that decision.

"I think that Mr. Steele is going to have to assess whether he can still lead the Republican Party as chairman of the Republican National Committee," McCain said on the ABC program "This Week." Graham said in a separate interview on the CBS program "Face the Nation" that Steele's comments did not represent mainstream GOP thinking.

"It's not the Republican Party's position, my Republican Party's position," Graham said.

At the same time, Graham joked that "the good news is Michael Steele is backtracking so fast he's going to be in Kabul fighting here pretty soon."

DeMint, in an interview on "FOX News Sunday," called Steele's comments unacceptable.

Steele "needs to apologize to our military, all the men and women who've been fighting in Afghanistan," DeMint said, adding: "This is a war we can win and we must win."

Paul, meanwhile, wants the United States to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan.

"I would like to congratulate Michael Steele for his leadership on one of the most important issues of today," Paul said. "He is absolutely right: Afghanistan is now Obama's war. During the 2008 campaign, Obama was out in front in insisting that more troops be sent to Afghanistan. Obama called for expanding the war even as he pretended to be a peace candidate."

Steele's critics are supporting "Nancy Pelosi and Barack Obama's war," Paul said of the Democratic House speaker and president.

"The American people are sick and tired spending hundreds of billions of dollars a year, draining our economy and straining our military," Paul said. "Michael Steele has it right and Republicans should stick by him."

However, Pelosi last week voted for an amendment to a Pentagon spending bill that would have placed tough restrictions on funding for the war in Afghanistan -- including a demand for a detailed troop withdrawal plan and a threat to pull money for the war if the military stays beyond next summer.

The amendment failed, but more than half the House Democratic caucus and nine Republicans voted for it, despite a White House veto threat if the final bill included the provision.

Both Graham and McCain said the United States must remain in Afghanistan as long as it takes to achieve the goal of preventing the country from again falling under Taliban control and becoming a safe haven for al Qaeda.

"The reason we came here is to secure America," Graham said, adding it was "imperative we say to our friends and enemies alike we're not leaving here until we've succeeded."

CNN's Mark Preston and Tom Cohen contributed to this report