The six men vying to become the next Republican National Committee chairman said Monday that the GOP needs to sharpen its message of conservative ideals in order to revive its traditional base and reclaim power. At the same time, they said, Republicans need to expand their numbers by appealing to young and Hispanic voters with improved technological and communication skills.
“It doesn’t seem like it’s the easiest thing in the world right now to be Republicans. But we’re here today to prove that it is,” said Michael Steele, a former Maryland lieutenant governor and 2006 Senate nominee. “I’m here to tell you all that the glass is half full. We just need to learn how to talk to people a little better than we have been.”
In the first of three events scheduled for this week, and the first-ever televised debate for RNC chair candidates, all six men acknowledged the dire straits their party faces as it seeks to recover from two consecutive elections in which they have lost the White House and majorities in the House and Senate. Unanimously, the candidates said the best way to do that is by embracing a new and improved message of conservatism.
“Too often, our candidates campaign like Ronald Reagan and govern like Jimmy Carter,” said Kenneth Blackwell, a former Ohio secretary of state and 2006 gubernatorial nominee. “The Republican Party must stand for something. We need to reinvigorate our base.”
But candidates said the GOP’s revival relies in part on the performance of the Obama administration, which they predicted would move too quickly in trying to advance an ambitious agenda. “I think they’re going to give us the gift of an overreaching, overpowering government that will limit our freedom,” South Carolina Republican Chair Katon Dawson said. Dawson said President Obama would likely continue the Democratic tradition of “overpromising and building up bigger government.”
But President Bush did not escape blame for embracing less than conservative ideals, a practice candidates said has led the party into the wilderness. “Unfortunately, I think President Bush in the last few months has opened up the door to Mr. Obama’s big government,” Blackwell said.
Indeed, candidates made little effort to hide their frustration with the outgoing president, whose approval rating stands about about 30 percent. All six candidates pointedly said Ronald Reagan was the country’s “best Republican president.” Several of them stumbled when Norquist asked for the “worst” Republican president.
“It’s easier if you list the dead ones,” moderator Grover Norquist jokingly suggested, to which Dawson replied, “we’ve got a few of those in the party these days.”
Even the president’s strongest supporters appeared willing to toss him aside in the interest of rebuilding the party. “I’ve worked very hard for George Bush, as we all have,” said Mike Duncan, the current RNC chair. “But it’s time to move forward.”
While Norquist ridiculed Democratic National Committee Chair Howard Dean for his widely publicized “scream” after the 2004 Iowa caucus, RNC candidates conceded that their party should adopt a “50-state strategy” similar to the one Dean drafted as DNC chair – and was verbally outlining during his infamous Iowa rant.
Former Tennessee Republican Chair Chip Saltsman, who managed Mike Huckabee’s presidential campaign, suggested that Republicans could even expand their reach in Dean’s home state of Vermont, a traditional bastion of liberal activism. “Vermont has a Republican governor and lieutenant governor. The lieutenant governor is very unabashedly pro-life and still leads the ballots in getting elected,” he said. “Every state, if we are going to be the majority party, needs a basic infrastructure if we are going to be the majority party.”
While Norquist concluded the 90-minute debate by saying one of the six men on stage will become the next RNC chair, several other party leaders are still being mentioned as possible candidates. Some party insiders this week are promoting Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), who appears unlikely to prevail in the recount of his race against Democrat Al Franken. State officials today certified Franken the winner, but Coleman may file a legal challenge. Florida GOP Chairman Jim Greer is also eyeing a bid.
All 168 RNC members are scheduled to choose their next chairman during the committee’s public meeting on Jan. 26th.
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