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RNC head says Democrats have a big problem with the economy

Pick a problem facing the Republican Party — an unsettled presidential field, disgruntled social conservatives, slim support among minorities — and Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus says Democrats have one that's bigger: the state of the economy.

"The message that will drive the 2012 election is an economic message," Priebus said in an interview on Wednesday while in Pittsburgh to meet with donors.

But who will occupy the driver's seat for Republicans is far from settled. Candidates range from culture warrior and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Penn Hills to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who signed a health care law for his state similar to the national overhaul Democrats passed in 2009. A Pew Research/Washington Post poll released yesterday found 42 percent of Republicans are "unimpressed" with the candidates.

The primary campaign will help sort that out, Priebus said.

"The diverse field ... is a good thing for our side," Priebus said. The contest excites the base, draws media attention and strengthens the ultimate winner, he said. "Look what it did for Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. It worked out pretty good for them."

In the end, a slow recovery from a deep recession, unemployment that remains higher than when President Obama took office and a national debt that's growing by more than $1 trillion a year will trump everything else voters care about, Priebus said. The more the presidential race focuses on the country's economy, "the better it's going to be for our party," he said.

"Chairman Priebus and his party are woefully out of touch with the middle-class Americans that Democrats are working tirelessly for," said Democratic National Committee spokesman Michael Czin.

The economic focus doesn't bode well for the sway social conservatives might hold over the party's direction, said Gerald Shuster, professor of presidential rhetoric at the University of Pittsburgh.

"The winners are going to be those who can find a way to deal with the economy," Shuster said. "People want something on the table that is specific and precise and that they can relate to. The economic solution pablum that's been offered so much in the past is just not going to work this time. Too many people have suffered and continue to suffer."

One of the few specific deficit-reduction plans Congress has offered — GOP Rep. Paul Ryan's plan to turn Medicare into a voucher program for people ages 54 or younger — sparked a backlash against changing the popular entitlement.

"While Chairman Priebus and Republicans have been busy trying to end Medicare, the Obama administration has created 2.1 million private-sector jobs over 14 consecutive months of job growth, rescued the American automobile industry and prevented the recession of 2008 from becoming another Great Depression," Czin said.

Priebus believes that by using entitlement reform as a political bludgeon rather than offering solutions, Democrats risk bankrupting Medicare. He accused Obama, who didn't include entitlement reform in his 2012 budget proposal, of "whistling past the graveyard."

Priebus came to Pittsburgh as part of a national tour to repair relationships with high-dollar donors. Many of those donors were unhappy with the stewardship of previous RNC Chairman Michael Steele, said Alex Castellanos, a Republican strategist who advised Steele.

Disaffected donors last year turned to third-party groups, which spent hundreds of millions of dollars on political ads. But election law bars those groups from working with campaigns — something the RNC can do.

"I need to rebuild credibility and trust. I need to bring donors back to the national committee, because without a functional, operational RNC, we can't defeat Barack Obama," Priebus said.

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