(Updates with Labor Department report and quotes from Priebus starting in 10th paragraph.)
June 8 (Bloomberg) -- Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said his party will turn the Medicare issue into a “plus” in the 2012 campaigns, even after losing a traditionally Republican seat in a New York special election last month.
“The fact that the Republicans are tackling the very difficult issue of Medicare and trying to find ways to save the program is going to be a plus,” he said at a Bloomberg Breakfast today in Washington.
Democrats have hammered Republicans for endorsing a proposal to privatize Medicare as part of a budget plan approved in April by almost all House Republicans. The issue helped Democrat Kathy Hochul win a May 24 special election in a historically Republican western New York House district.
Priebus predicted that voters will eventually embrace his party’s willingness to address the growing cost of the health- care program for the elderly.
“Americans understand and agree that Medicare is a promise that the government on its current course cannot keep and we have to do something about it,” he said.
Priebus also blasted Democrats for not pushing Representative Anthony Weiner into resigning, after the seven- term New York congressman on June 6 admitted sending inappropriate online photos and messages to several women. Yesterday, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California asked the House Ethics Committee to investigate whether his communications violated House conduct rules.
‘Hit the Bricks’
“Do we really need an ethics committee investigation to determine if this guy’s a creep or not?” Priebus asked. Pelosi and Democratic leaders should tell Weiner that “he should hit the bricks,” said Priebus.
The party chairman attacked President Barack Obama’s economic policies, saying the struggling economy will boost Republican chances in 2012.
“President Obama is not going to win this election with the economy in the ditch,” he said. “For our party, it provides an enormous opportunity to defeat him.”
The Labor Department reported last week that payrolls grew by a less-than-projected 54,000 in May -- the smallest gain in eight months. The unemployment rate rose to 9.1 percent, the highest this year.
The jobs report was the latest economic indicator suggesting the nation’s recovery from the worst recession since the 1930s has hit a soft patch with the presidential election 17 months away.
The presidential race will be fought mainly over economic issues, including job growth and voter concern about the federal deficit and government spending, Priebus said.
“My sense is that people are going to vote with their pocketbooks,” he said.
Republicans seeking the nomination to challenge Obama include former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Representative Ron Paul of Texas and former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania. Herman Cain, former chief executive officer of Godfather’s Pizza Inc., and former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson also declared their candidacies.
Other potential candidates include Minnesota Reprsentatives Michele Bachmann, former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, and former U.S. ambassador to China and Utah governor Jon Huntsman.
Priebus called the field “galvanizing” and said he expects it to be “set completely” by Labor Day.
During the hour-long breakfast session, Priebus said he is working to reduce the $25 million Republican National Committee debt he inherited when he became party chairman in January. The debt is now below $18.8 million, he said, with $5 million in cash on hand.
He stressed the national party’s importance even though independent groups can raise campaign money in secret and at faster rates.
“You cannot defeat Barack Obama without a functional Republican National Committee,” he said.
The committee’s most important role, he said, is to coordinate get-out-the-vote efforts with the party’s nominee, something independents are prohibited from doing.
“I happen to believe in the ground war,” he said. “The Republican National Committee is the army on the ground.”
--Editors: Laurie Asseo, Robin Meszoly
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