WASHINGTON - Maria Cino says she's starting out in the middle of the five candidates vying for chairmanship of the Republican National Committee.
But she sees that as a good thing.
Cino is confident she'll win the post on Jan. 14 if balloting continues past two rounds.
The 53-year-old Buffalo native, a longtime aide to former New York congressman Bill Paxon, spoke optimistically about her prospects following a debate held Monday at the National Press Club.
If current RNC chairman Michael Steele doesn't win re-election on the first ballot, Cino expects to build support during subsequent ballots.
"This is going top be a several-ballot contest,'' Cino said in an interview. "You don't want to be on the top. If you come in on the middle, you are going to gain speed as you go.''
The selection will be made by the RNC's 168 members, many of whom are being lobbied for support in the event their favorite candidate falters.
One of the top candidates is Reince Preibus, chairman of the Wisconsin Republican Party and a former Steele backer who served as the RNC's general counsel.
If Steele decides he can't win re-election and drops out after the second ballot, his supporters likely will support Cino over Preibus, according to Priscilla Rakestraw, an RNC member from Delaware who supports Cino.
"There are many backroom talks," Rakestraw said. "There are many phone calls. Who's your second choice? Who's your first choice? I believe what Michael Steele gets on the first ballot will be his peak.''
Rakestraw is the RNC's longest-serving member, having belonged since 1975. She's seen many leadership battles go through multiple ballots.
Steele, the first African-American chairman of the RNC, said he deserves credit for the party's comeback over the last two years, beginning with victories in the New Jersey and Virginia governors' races in 2009 and most recently with the GOP's sweep in the midterm elections.
"We fired Pelosi,'' Steele said, referring to the GOP takeover of the House that will unseat Democratic Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California as speaker.
Cino said she's trained for the top RNC post most of her adult life. When Paxon became chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, he appointed Cino, then his chief of staff, as the committee's executive director. She was chief executive of the 2008 Republican National Convention and the RNC's deputy chairwoman in 2003-2004.
Cino, who was a lobbyist for the Pfizer pharmaceutical company, was asked during Monday's debate if she had worked to help health care reform legislation become law.
Cino said she worked on behalf of "Republican principles'' and against health care rationing and "death panels." Such panels, which were never part of the legislation, were a mischaracterization of a proposal to reimburse physicians for end-of-life counseling.