Republicans are poised for successful midterm elections, but many of the party's most conservative activists are looking ahead to something bigger.
"We need to save this country in 2016," Republican National Chairman Reince Priebus told the opening session of the 2014 Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans, on Thursday.
The annual event has grown into an opportunity for rising GOP stars to address some of the most conservative rank-and-file party faithful who influence the presidential nomination process.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal kicked of the list of White House hopefuls, delighting delegates by skewering President Barack Obama as "the most ideologically liberal" and "most incompetent president of our lifetimes." Delegates will hear Friday and Saturday from tea party hero Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, 2012 presidential candidates Rick Santorum, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, and others.
Jindal previewed what his presidential campaign pitch might look like, should he run, explaining his statewide private school tuition voucher program, privatization of the state's public hospital system and a series of tax cuts as examples of a conservative renaissance in his state.
Jindal noted that the Obama administration sued unsuccessfully to block the tuition program, a move the governor called "cynical, immoral, hypocritical." He also threw some barbs at Obama to take indirect swipes at some of his potential White House rivals such as Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul.
"We're watching on-the-job training," Jindal said, because "we have a president who'd never run anything before."
Governors, he said, make the best presidents, pointing to Republican Ronald Reagan and Democrat Bill Clinton.
Neither Rubio nor Paul is scheduled to speak at the three-day gathering. Two of Jindal's fellow governors — Chris Christie of New Jersey and Scott Walker of Wisconsin — also are skipping it.
The conference comes as Republicans campaign to win complete control of Capitol Hill for the final two years of Obama's tenure. The GOP is favored to retain its House majority and has a strong chance of winning a Senate majority.
But delegates, many of them festooned in red, white and blue, were brimming with talk of 2016.
While Priebus joined in the cheerleading, the chairman reprized his frequent call for the party to get better at the nuts and bolts of campaigning — from corralling a free-for-all primary process to reaching into minority communities that overwhelmingly support Democrats — before even thinking about who the 2016 nominee should be.
"We have a tale of two parties," Priebus said. "We have a midterm party that doesn't lose, and we have a presidential party that's having a hard time winning."
He noted obvious voter demographics that show Republican nominees must attract more young and minority voters. But public opinion polls also suggest that the party's conservative positions — and its candidates' emphasis — on issues including immigration, abortion and same-sex marriage are liabilities with some of the very groups they want to win over.
The chairman avoided saying the party should change any of its positions. "It's not my job to write legislation," he said, though he added later that "we could emphasize different things," such as expanding school choice or loan programs for minority entrepreneurs. Whatever the policy, he said, "we have to show up and make the argument," rather than concede swaths of the electorate.
Roy Luke, a retired Air Force master sergeant from Augusta, Ga., said the party's problem is "more about image than substance."
Luke argued that younger voters are eager to hear economic growth arguments from Republicans, while religiously conservative Latinos agree with the party's socially conservative stances. "These are all Republicans," he said, emphatically. "They just don't know it yet."
Former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin made a surprise appearance, helping introduce Phil Robertson, patriarch of cable television's "Duck Dynasty." Robertson has become a cultural icon for many conservative because of his outspoken Christian faith and commentary on sexuality, including opposition to same-sex marriage.
He mostly stayed clear of partisan politics. He blasted separation of church and state and called abortion a "blight" on society. He drew applause and shouts of "Amen" in calling for a national Christian revival and describing himself as a "Christocrat."
"If we don't turn to God at a pretty rapid clip," he said, "we're going to lose the United States of America."
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