Politico said he wasn’t, now Fox News (and Frum Forum) say he is. To help you process this news, read Ed’s post from this morning about Obama potentially spending a cool billion on the 2012 campaign and then have a look at Jay Cost’s graph of Republican fundraising over the last four cycles. Said Cost, believing that Steele was set to bow out, “In the end, this is what did Michael Steele in. He could not raise the money, and that just will not do moving forward.”

Or will it?

Ending weeks of rumors that he would not seek a second term, Steele plans to throw his hat into the ring during a conference call with RNC members at 7:30 p.m. ET, the sources said. Steele is said to be amused by false reports of his retirement and intentionally kept his plans secret for the last month in order to flush out competitors for the post, Fox has learned.

During Steele’s tenure, Republicans picked up 63 House seats in last month’s elections, the biggest gain in more than seven decades. But Steele has been dogged by criticism from some Republicans who see him as prone to missteps.

Criticism of Steele has helped lead to a crowded field of challengers seeking to head the RNC. Among those who have officially announced they are in the race are Saul Anuzis, a committee member from Michigan who ran and lost to Steele in 2009, and Reince Priebus of Wisconsin, a former member of Steele’s inner circle, along with former Luxembourg Ambassador Anne Wagner.

So that explains why he didn’t show up at the RNC chair debate: He was lying low, cagily making it look like he wouldn’t run again so that, er … more contenders would jump into the race. Frum Forum’s whip count puts him at around 45-60 votes in the first round of balloting, with 85 needed to win; several of his former aides and allies (Reince Priebus, Gentry Collins, etc) are in the race as challengers, so a key question will be what happens to their supporters if/when they’re eliminated in the first few rounds. Are those supporters so disgruntled with Steele that they’ll gravitate to a consensus alternative, like Saul Anuzis? Or are they actually clubby RNC insiders who prefer Priebus and Collins to Steele but will resort to the chairman as a next best option if their preference is eliminated? Or will some outsider with fundraising appeal, like Norm Coleman, sweep in to provide yet another alternative?

There are only two reasons to conceivably back Steele, as I see it. One: The GOP did, after all, win 63 seats on his watch, and he’s been lying low enough over the last few months that at least it looks like the gaffe-o-rama phase of his chairmanship is finally over. All of which is well and good, but in that case I urge you to follow the link up top and eyeball Cost’s graph again. The question isn’t whether the GOP did well this year, it’s whether it could have done better if the RNC had been flush with cash. Gentry Collins argued that poor fundraising might have cost Republicans an extra two dozen House seats, but given that he’s now challenging Steele for the chairman’s position, take that estimate for what it’s worth. Two: If you believe that, in an age of online donations and targeted giving to campaigns, the RNC will never again be relevant the way it once was, then maybe it’s better to keep Steele in place. It’ll avoid a nasty public squabble between pro-Steele factions, led by Palin, and anti-Steele factions like the “Bush establishment,” and it’ll spare us the spectacle of Steele doing interviews to dump on the GOP after he loses. Plus, if Steele’s reelected, Republican outside groups are bound to start planning way ahead to pick up the slack in case the RNC can’t get its act together to fulfill its traditional fundraising and GOTV roles. No one cares about the RNC as an organization, only that its functions are being done and done well by some conservative outfit. If Steele’s reelected, it means that some other outfit or outfits will be pressured to step up. Inconvenient, but not fatal. I think.