The GO in GOP

Rep. Putnam Stays on Message

When you're in the minority, says Rep. Adam Putnam, you have to respond quickly and press those points.
When you're in the minority, says Rep. Adam Putnam, you have to respond quickly and press those points. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
By Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 6, 2007

Rep. Adam Putnam won't apologize for trying to make headlines.

The Florida Republican's new job is to jump on anything that makes Democrats look bad and exploit it for maximum effect. As chairman of the Republican Conference Committee, Putnam is the face and voice of House Republicans. His agenda: to aggressively display the flaws of the new majority, to convey the ideas of the Republicans, and to work his hardest to help his party win back the House in 2008.

"Because we're in the minority, we have to work that much harder to get our message out," said Putnam, who edged out Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) for the job of conference chairman by a vote of 100 to 91.

At 32, Putnam is the second-youngest member of Congress and the youngest to hold the job of GOP conference chair.

His smooth face, punctuated by a dimpled smile, and tousled red hair make him look more legislative aide than congressman. He has endured nicknames including "Opie" and "Howdy Doody." Two years ago, Rep. Marion Berry (D-Ark.) was speaking on the House floor when he looked at Putnam and wondered aloud what Putnam was going to be when he grew up.

Putnam was elected to the Florida House at 22, one year after he graduated from the University of Florida. A member of a citrus-growing and cattle-ranching family, Putnam was elected to Congress at age 28 in 2000. Then-House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) campaigned for Putnam in Florida, and they grew close.

Once in office, Putnam became a protege of Hastert, who placed him on key congressional committees such as Rules and Budget.

When Rep. Tom DeLay was indicted last year and resigned, Putnam landed his first leadership post, as chairman of the House Republican Policy Committee.

He's a solid conservative, applauded by the American Conservative Union and Americans for Tax Reform. Last fall, during the House page scandal, Putnam was the party's point man, defending the GOP on the Sunday talk shows. In January, he appeared in Vanity Fair's portfolio of "Washington's new ruling class" in a photo captioned "The Rising Republicans."

Putnam, who offers visitors to his office cold bottles of orange juice from the family business, is married and has four small children.

In his new role, which places him third in line in party leadership, he is a frequent guest on television talk shows and radio programs. He said he relishes the chance to go head to head with his Democratic counterpart, Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.). "I enjoy the give-and-take," Putnam said. "From an intellectual standpoint, I really enjoy those kinds of exchanges."

He has assembled a rapid-response team, people who get out the party message to both the public and GOP lawmakers. Life in the minority means the Republicans don't always know days in advance what will transpire and often have to react to Democratic moves, which makes good internal communication key, Putnam said.

He is developing a new communications strategy for the Republicans, one that reaches beyond the Beltway to telegraph the party's message to small media markets. He implemented a weekly GOP radio address made available to regional radio stations across the country and is trying to cultivate reporters at small newspapers and blogs that originate far from Washington. "We're trying to get beyond The Washington Post and the New York Times and take our message to farm radios and weekly papers," Putnam said.

All of which is difficult for a party out of power. "We don't have the bully pulpit of the speakership, we don't set the agenda for hearings, not as many reporters come to our pad-and-pencil sessions," Putnam said. "We have to work a lot harder to drive our message, to put out more effort to be heard."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company