NEW ORLEANS -- In damage-control mode, Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele on Saturday sought to quell the furor over his management of the organization by acknowledging errors and vowing to learn from them.

"I'm the first here to admit that I've made mistakes, and it's been incumbent on me to take responsibility to shoulder that burden, make the necessary changes and move on," Steele told GOP activists and party leaders, drawing a standing ovation.

"The one mistake we cannot make this November is to lose," he added, and the crowd cheered in agreement.

Saturday's speech to the Southern Republican Leadership Conference was Steele's first public appearance since the disclosure of questionable spending, including a $2,000 tab at a sex-themed California night club, resulted in top advisers cutting ties with him and North Carolina's state party chief calling for his resignation.

Normally a bombastic showman, Steele struck a contrite tone before the supportive audience in the half-full hotel ballroom. He did not address the specific complaints, but did admit to making errors.

"We can't coast into the majority, nor can we assume it's a sure thing. The liberal media are looking for any possible alternative narrative to tell," Steele said. "They are looking for those distractions, and Lord knows I've provided a few."

He added, "The Democrats also know that they have some explaining to do, and they'd love nothing more than for us to keep pointing fingers."

Still, for all the angst in the GOP over Steele, it is unlikely that he will be fired. Ousting a chairman is a complicated, messy process that requires votes of two-thirds of the 168-member RNC.

And while there are hardcore Steele opponents and fierce Steele allies, several Republican officials at the conference said that most committee members and party chairman simply seem to want to move on from the controversy so Republicans can focus on November.

Conference attendees voted in a straw poll for their top 2012 choice, although the results were hardly predictive and meant little.

Many Republicans considering a bid were left off the list, while others like Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour asked that their names not be included.

Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney didn't attend the conference but won by a single vote over Texas Rep. Ron Paul, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.