Republican National Committee wraps up strategy session in Hawaii

By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 31, 2010; A04

HONOLULU -- You knew something unusual was going on here when you saw men in navy blazers thumbing furiously on their BlackBerrys, a correspondent from "The Daily Show" interviewing passersby near the beach and a burly 69-year-old Texan in a black cowboy hat, suede blazer and leather boots striding past a waterfall swimming pool, pink flamingoes and a scarlet macaw.

Republicans had arrived on Waikiki Beach.

Party leaders from as far away as Maine and American Samoa jetted to Hawaii for the Republican National Committee's four-day winter meeting, which concluded Saturday. Here they debated purity, assailed Democrats and, yes, had some fun in the sun.

Republicans spent their first night here under the stars at a traditional luau, which began with a conch-shell blowing and concluded with their chairman, Michael S. Steele, on stage with grass-skirted islanders, dancing the hula. RNC members called him "a natural," joking that if he stepped down as chairman, he could be cast in a luau revue.

"I missed it," lamented Hawaii Gov. Linda Lingle (R), who told RNC members: "I'm waiting for the photos. Anyone with video, I'll give you my e-mail address."

Steele said there were "wonderful performances" but deadpanned: "We don't need to go there now, do we? No, we don't. It's such a can of worms."

Fortunately for Steele -- who last week embraced the local culture by wearing bead necklaces, a flower lei, un-tucked Hawaiian shirts and sandals -- his hula dance has not surfaced on YouTube. (The event was closed to the media.)

But that does not mean the party chief has escaped the image of Republicans gathering at a windswept beach resort in sunny Honolulu -- 5,000 miles from snow-covered Washington and seemingly a world away from millions of Americans without jobs.

Steele defended his decision to come to Hawaii, saying it is no different than the other 49 states and that the meeting here symbolizes the party's 2010 ambitions. Republicans will compete in every state, he said, including the traditionally Democratic homeland of President Obama.

"The tide is turning," Steele said, one of several ocean-themed metaphors he used this week.

Mary Jean Jensen, a committee member from South Dakota, said she escaped a blizzard to attend. Like some other RNC members, she paid her own way. "It isn't that we're using dollars that grandmas have given us for elections," she said.

To be sure, the RNC sponsored many meals and rented meeting rooms.

For all the criticism Republicans have faced for gathering at the Hilton Hawaiian Village, it is not as if they have spent the week lounging in the sand and taking surfing lessons. They were working, holed up for hours on end in conference rooms debating party principles and strategies for the November midterm elections.

Some party leaders complained that they were so busy with "homework" that they never waded into the warm blue waters of the Pacific. Georgia Republican Party Chairman Sue P. Everhart said she stayed at the luau just long enough to "see the guy split the coconut." But, she added, "it's hard not to enjoy just the atmosphere of the Hawaiian people."

Steele's special assistant, Joey Smith, liked the atmosphere so much that he proposed to his girlfriend on Sandy Beach. Smith may not have known that the beach is a favorite of Obama. Remember that 2008 photograph of candidate Obama body surfing? Yep, Sandy Beach.

By week's end, RNC members were making time for the beach. Former Nevada governor Robert List, who had wandered around in a suit and tie, said Friday, "I'm about to take this off very soon."

Jensen, decked out in American flag pins and campaign buttons, said she was surprised to see some of her fellow party leaders more casually dressed. "I've seen some RNC men in swimming suits," she said. "It's a little much. Now don't write that down!"

Sure enough, at that very moment, a man dressed in a blue "RNC Member" polo shirt and blue shark-print swim trunks walked past in flip-flops.

One visitor, however, shunned the sun. Former House leader Richard K. Armey, the Texan in the cowboy hat, came to negotiate on behalf of "tea party" activists. Asked whether he had been on the beach, Armey said he would not have fun because his wife, Susan, did not make the trip.

"It's not that I'm a stick in the mud, but I just feel like I'm sitting here. Susan and I always dreamed it'd be nice to go to Hawaii together, and it ain't right to party without her," Armey said.

He drew a contrast with a certain South Carolina governor. Armey said he "won't be going on a hiking trip on the Appalachian Trail." Then he stood up, put on his hat and moved on, past the bikini-clad tourists stretching on chaise lounges and sipping mai tais. Another meeting.

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