CHARLOTTE — The official slogan for the Republican National Committee’s three-day winter meeting here was “Renew Grow Win.” But it did little to resolve the bigger issue for the battered party, which could have been summed in one word: How?
If there was an undercurrent of hope at the gathering, which was the first of the party’s central committee since the election, it was in the fact that there is a rising generation of GOP leaders, some of whom are getting buzz as possible presidential candidates in 2016.
Somewhere from this diverse group, Republicans say, could emerge a Moses-like figure — maybe several of them — to lead the party out of its wilderness.
“I just have a lot of confidence in our message-deliverers now,” said Illinois Republican chairman Pat Brady. “I love these guys.”
“Both the message and the messenger are critical,” added Saul Anuzis, a GOP leader from Michigan. “Right now, we are all a party waiting for the next messenger.”
That is a relatively unusual position for the Republicans. When it comes to picking a presidential nominee, theirs is a party that generally works like a European monarchy, giving its nod to the next in the line of succession.
Many here pointed to the 30 Republican governors as having the potential both to set the party on a new course and produce from their ranks a successful 2016 presidential candidate.
One of them, Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal, gave a keynote address here where he warned: “We must stop being the stupid party. It’s time for a new Republican Party that talks like adults.”
Jindal, an Indian American who has a wonkish appeal, is one of several GOP governors who are being sized up as presidential prospects. Others, with very different styles, include blunt-talking Chris Christie of New Jersey and Virginia’s polished Robert F. McDonnell.
Party leaders also are excited by the prospects of some of their stars in Congress, including charismatic Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, whose performance as the 2012 GOP vice-presidential nominee got strong reviews in Republican circles.
That the Republican establishment should be looking so eagerly for fresh faces is not the norm.
Going pretty far back, the party has almost always picked a nominee who had run before (Ronald Reagan in 1980, Bob Dole in 1996, John McCain in 2008, Mitt Romney in 2012), who had been vice president (Richard M. Nixon in 1960 and 1968, George H.W. Bush in 1988) or who came with a pedigree (George W. Bush in 2000).
In nearly every one of those races, there was an insurgent alternative or two, but they were inevitably beaten back as the party rallied to its perceived heir apparent.
There is no obvious figure standing next in line for 2016 — nor are GOP leaders eager to see one, given their disappointment over Romney’s defeat by President Obama, whom Republicans had expected to be vulnerable.
“The idea of the next-guy-in-line concept is sort of a dying idea in our party,” said Reince Priebus, who was easily reelected RNC chairman on Friday. “It’s a boring idea, and we don’t want to be a boring party.”
If there is a comparison in recent political history to the situation that Republicans are in now, some said, it is the one that the Democrats faced in the late 1980s, after back-to-back presidential election defeats. They pointed to Bill Clinton as the type of transformational figure they need now.
“We’re foolish if we don’t learn from the past,” said Henry Barbour, a Republican committeeman from Mississippi who is part of a task force that is putting together a report aimed at correcting the party’s deficiencies.
But Clinton did more than sharpen the Democratic Party’s talking points. He also helped reorient its philosophy, taking it in a more centrist direction on issues from crime to trade to welfare.
That sort of ideological shift is something that few Republicans are willing to advocate at this point. They still insist that the problem is not what they believe, but how they express it.
“We do not need to change what we believe as conservatives — our principles are timeless,” Jindal said. “But we do need to reorient our focus to the place where conservatism thrives — in the real world beyond the Washington Beltway.”
Republicans know that they must do more than wait for a savior.
“As a party, we must recognize that we live in an era of permanent politics,” Priebus said in a speech after his reelection. “We must stop living nominee-to-nominee, campaign-to-campaign.”
And Jindal himself deflected questions from reporters about whether he is making plans for 2016. “Any Republican that’s thinking about talking about running for president in 2016 needs to get his head examined,” he told reporters after his speech. “We’ve got a lot of work to do. We’ve got to get the Republican Party back on track.”
Much of that work centers on addressing the GOP deficiencies that were laid bare by the 2012 election. They include a message that turned off swing voters, women and minorities; weak candidates who in some cases repelled those groups; and voter-turnout machinery that seemed decades behind that of Obama’s operation.
All of those things combined to limit the Republicans’ reach and their appeal. Rather than broadening their base, they deepened the perception that they are a party that stands on the side of wealth and privilege.
“Party leadership now needs to be beginning [to shape] the message,” said Florida Republican Chairman Lenny Curry. “We’ve got to be the party of the middle class and the little guy. And we need to be talking about those things now.”
Republicans are also looking at some tactical adjustments that might help their nominee, including limiting the number of debates in which their primary candidates engage and scheduling their convention earlier.