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GOP Leaders Try to Polish Party's Image

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By Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 3, 2009

A group of prominent GOP leaders yesterday launched an effort to improve their party's sagging image, hosting an event at which they did not directly attack President Obama, rarely used the word "Republican" and engaged in a healthy dose of self-criticism.

At a pizza restaurant in Arlington, where they officially unveiled the National Council for a New America, party leaders attempted to portray Republicans as sensitive to the concerns of average Americans and to shake off the "Party of No" label that Democrats have tried to affix to the GOP.

House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (Va.) rejected the idea that yesterday's event, the first in a national series, was about "rebranding" the GOP, but it gave the impression of a party looking for a fresh start. Cantor, former Florida governor Jeb Bush and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney sat on stools and lobbed criticism at "Washington" and "liberals." They took few shots at Obama as they pledged to start a "conversation" with voters around the country.

The three men were flanked by banners bearing the name of the council and its Web address (http://www.wethepeopleplan.org), but there were no obvious signs that it was a major Republican initiative. They repeatedly noted that they were speaking about policy, not politics, and they touted conservative ideas on issues such as health care and education while bemoaning initiatives that involved more government intervention.

In answering an attack on Obama, Bush included a critique of his own party.

"To candidate Obama's credit, he waged a 2008 campaign that was relevant for people's aspirations, whether you agree with him or not. It was not a look back, but a look forward," Bush said. Comparing the GOP's campaign themes last year, he said: "I felt like there was a lot of nostalgia for the good old days in the messaging."

Cantor took the lead in forming the group, which he says is officially nonpartisan, though it includes no Democrats and will be operated out of his office.

The initiative reflects the emerging consensus of Republican leaders on how to take on Obama and rebuild their party. Worried that the GOP is being portrayed only as the opposition party, prominent Republicans hope to draw attention to their agenda by using well-known figures such as Bush and Romney to tout their ideas. But they don't believe they need to shift their political views to the left or the right to win.

"Our party has taken its licks over the last couple of cycles; no one is under any illusions about that," Cantor said. "But that's why we're here. It's important for us to reengage with the people of this country. . . . The prescriptions coming out of Washington are not really reflective of the mainstream."

The town-hall-style event was also the latest signal of Cantor's emergence as one of the party's leading voices. He announced the group's creation in a conference call Thursday, even as House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) was bashing Obama to reporters.

No other party leaders in Congress attended the event, although Cantor aides said that they were invited and that some will participate in future events.

Republican National Committee Chairman Michael S. Steele was not included; Cantor's office said that doing so would have made the effort seem more partisan. But much of what the group will do mirrors work being done by the new chairman, who has been traveling the country and soliciting ideas from Republicans about how to improve the party. Steele is battling the idea that he is something of a liability for the party because of his gaffes.

Romney is widely seen as preparing for a second presidential run in 2012, while Bush is eager to assert himself in the debate over how the GOP should reshape itself.

The three offered a few new ideas -- Bush, for instance, suggested charging lower tuition rates for college students who major in fields where there is a shortage of workers, such as nursing. But the general message was clear, if not directly spoken: While they disagree with Obama, Republicans need to build credibility through their own policy ideas instead of bashing the president.

"From the conservative side, it's time for us to listen first, upgrade our message a bit, not be nostalgic about the old days," Bush said.

A standing-room-only crowd of more than 100 packed the Pie-tanza restaurant for yesterday's event.

"I'm glad to hear them keep talking about listening," said Brian Summers, a Republican activist who lives in Washington.


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