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Republicans gather in Charlotte to discuss strategy

| Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
JASMINE GOLDBAND
RNC Chairman Reince Priebus is interviewed by the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review in Pittsburgh, Wednesday, June 1, 2011. (Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review)
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal takes part in a panel discussion at the Aspen Institute on Wednesday evening, August 1, 2012, as part of the McCloskey Speaker Series with Republican Governors. The other governors present were Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. (AP Photo/The Aspen Daily News,Chris Council )

CHARLOTTE — Days after President Obama pitched a liberal agenda to the nation, Republican leaders will talk about how to regain control of the White House and Senate and emphasize conservative values in governance.

Reince Priebus, a Wisconsin lawyer who appears poised to win a second term as chairman of the Republican National Committee, said it's time for the party to lead and to learn to appeal to all Americans.

“I think it is a theme that the members of the committee, the party as a whole and the country are ready for,” Priebus told the Tribune-Review.

The RNC's 168 members open their three-day Winter Meeting here on Wednesday and elect officers on Friday. Maine committeeman Mark Willis, who announced his intent to challenge Priebus, did not return calls for comment. It's unclear whether he obtained the required endorsements.

With a splintered party weary from losing two election cycles, Priebus hopes RNC members will turn their attention to things the Democrats do — becoming a year-round political operation; developing a method of attracting minorities, young people and women; and expanding technology capabilities.

“If you are going to be big and granular and far-reaching and in communities, you cannot get there in a half of a year; you have got to be doing this year-round,” Priebus said, noting that 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney's nine-month campaign could not compete with an incumbent who spent $100 million on outreach and technology while GOP primary rivals debated 23 times.

Just as important, Priebus said, the party must start appealing to all Americans, not just those in battleground states.

“The challenge for our party is to expand our voting base without compromising our principles,” he said. That begins with “controlling tone, and (espousing) our principles in a way that is far-reaching, as opposed to being exclusionary, as we have in the past.”

On Tuesday, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Shultz of Florida won a second term as chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee because Obama requested that she retain the post. Democrats held a one-day winter meeting in Washington.

Under Priebus' leadership since 2011, the RNC erased $24 million in debt and regained the trust of donors. But he faces a challenge of corralling the party's factions — libertarians, Tea Party adherents, establishment Republicans — to focus on rebuilding, experts say.

On core issues, the factions often agree, but “such uniformity makes it harder for Republicans to grow their coalition,” said Brock McCleary, a Pennsylvania-based GOP strategist.

“To the outside observer, establishment Republicans, libertarians and the Tea Party look relatively similar. The GOP needs unconventional characters with even more unconventional views to attract a more diverse audience,” said McCleary, CEO of Harper Polling in Harrisburg.

The party is acknowledging America's changing demographics, leading to a diverse electorate. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, the son of immigrants from India and a possible 2016 presidential candidate, will speak at Thursday's dinner here.

“We don't need to become a second Democratic Party or another liberal party,” Jindal said in an interview with the Trib. “We do not need to change our principles, but we do need to modernize our party.”

Republicans won't attract people if they talk as though the best days of conservatism are behind them, Jindal said. “We are a young country at heart, and America has always believed our best days are ahead of us. We need to project that same kind of energy and optimism.”

Nonwhites made up 28 percent of the electorate in 2012, compared with 20 percent in 2000, Fox News reported after the November election. Hispanics accounted for much of that growth. CNN exit polls showed Obama won 71 percent of the Hispanic vote and 93 percent of the black vote.

An RNC committee is working on a strategy to reach out to minorities, young people and women and could make recommendations within 60 days, Priebus said. It will not be “a couple people reaching out to Hispanic communities from Washington, D.C., for a day or two and going home,” he said.

“We need to work with Hispanic leaders in local communities and build relationships from the ground up, and talk about entrepreneurship, education, economics, jobs — do voter outreach and voter registration and community events.”

That peer-to-peer method can work because “only trusted voices in communities can be the kind of ambassadors the party needs,” McCleary said.

Though raising the money to make that happen is important, the party needs to communicate better, Priebus said.

“We have to start talking a little less about calculus and a little bit more about people's lives across America,” he said. “We have to do a better job using, communicating and building the party through all of the technology available to us.”

McCleary, who worked for the campaign arm of the congressional Republicans in Washington, said the RNC's biggest challenge is that it is “merely a political organization.” Political movements are built around individuals, not political parties, he said.

“By 2016, a Republican candidate must emerge that can turn the RNC's hard work into gold,” McCleary said.

Salena Zito is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at szito@tribweb.com.

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