WASHINGTON - Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele launched a fight to keep his job yesterday, stunning many in the party who had expected him to step aside.

His decision means Republicans will be debating the record of their first African-American chairman next month at the moment the new GOP-controlled House is being sworn in. Steele and A bruising internecine fight could become an unwelcome distraction.

Near the close of a sometimes rambling, 33-minute speech, delivered to members of the RNC via conference call Monday night, Steele asked them to give him a second term "because I really believe in my heart that our work is not done."

He faces an uphill fight to keep his job, according to RNC veterans, including some who say they like him personally but doubt he can win. His move sets up a battle with a half-dozen rivals, who thus far have soft-pedaled their criticism of Steele's record, ahead of a mid-January vote.