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After fanfare, few Republicans campaigning on 'Pledge to America'

By Ben Pershing
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 5, 2010; 8:49 PM

PINEY RIVER, VA. - A week after House Republican leaders gathered at a lumberyard in Sterling to announce their "Pledge to America," one of the party's prized recruits stopped at a business about 150 miles away to make a campaign pitch about taxes, regulation and the government's role.

Virginia state Sen. Robert Hurt touched on many of the themes of the pledge, but he didn't mention it by name or quote a single line from the 48-page document. He hadn't even looked at it.

"I have not sat down and read it," said Hurt, adding that he had glimpsed "summaries of it."

For all the fanfare and publicity that accompanied the pledge's release, relatively few Republican candidates nationwide appear to be adopting it as a guiding vision, much less incorporating it into their campaigns.

That stands in contrast to the document the pledge is most often compared to, the 1994 "Contract With America," which Republicans announced just before they captured control of Congress. In September of that year, more than 300 GOP candidates and lawmakers joined together on the steps of the Capitol to endorse the contract and its tenets. Republicans then made it the centerpiece of their national campaign, and candidates incorporated it into their messages.

Nothing of that sort has happened this year. Nevertheless, the pledge has shifted the debate in Washington by giving Republicans something to point to when they're accused of having no ideas or vision for the future.

The simple fact that President Obama has chosen to rebut the pledge, as he has done in weekly radio addresses and in a rally last week in Wisconsin, marks a clear shift, Republicans say.

"The president was attacking us as the 'party of no,' and now he's criticizing our ideas," said Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), the lead writer of the document. "He changed his whole attack against Republicans."

And by laying out their vision in a long document full of rhetorical flourishes - unlike the bullet-point concision of the 1994 contract - Republicans have made it easy for their candidates to back it generally and difficult for their opponents to criticize it directly.

"What you want to do is give a candidate the flexibility to focus on the stuff they like from it," said Glen Bolger, a Republican pollster who was not involved in crafting the pledge. "If there's stuff that doesn't fit their area, it's not something they would necessarily then tout. I think it's a little more flexible than a contract-style document."

The pledge - the product of several months' work by a handful of key House Republicans - offers the party's plan to create jobs, cut government spending, "repeal and replace" the health-care reform law, change the way Congress operates and strengthen national security. The document puts a heavy emphasis on jobs and the economy and only briefly mentions social issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage.

Like Hurt, Bill Flores, the Republican running to unseat Rep. Chet Edwards in Texas, said last week that he hadn't had time to read the pledge. Morgan Griffith, the GOP challenger to Rep. Rick Boucher in Virginia, had "not finished going over" the pledge as of Tuesday, his campaign spokesman said. And a spokesman for Republican Steve Stivers, Rep. Mary Jo Kilroy's opponent in Ohio, said that he wasn't sure whether his boss had read the pledge, but that he hasn't mentioned it on the campaign trail.

Other Republican candidates said they consider the document an a la carte menu of policies from which to choose, not a manifesto to endorse.

Ryan Frazier, who is in a tight House race in Colorado, said that the pledge is not "all-encompassing" and that there are "things that aren't in there that I would like to see" on subjects such as education. Massachusetts Republican Jeff Perry called the pledge a "great statement of principles" but one that is "not all-inclusive of everything we have been talking about."

Running full-speed to oust freshman Rep. Tom Perriello (D) from Virginia's 5th District seat, Hurt has covered much of the same ground that the pledge does without referencing the document. He wants to repeal the health-care law, downsize the federal government, and cut taxes and regulations on small businesses.

But he hasn't talked much about congressional reform or other aspects of the document. And he said not one voter has asked him about it.

A new Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 34 percent of adults (and 46 percent of likely voters) had heard of the pledge. Of those adults who were aware of the document, 23 percent said it made them more likely to vote for Republicans this fall, 29 percent said less likely and 45 percent said it wouldn't affect their vote.

As Hurt campaigned last week through the 5th District, which stretches from Charlottesville to the North Carolina border, most voters appeared to fall in the last category.

At Saunders Brothers farm market in Piney River, owner Paul Saunders said he thinks "the government is taking over all of the things in the country and putting a stranglehold on us." But he said he doesn't really know anything about the Republican plan.

The crafters of the pledge said they did not intend to create a second "Contract With America." No candidates were invited to the event in Sterling, nor have Republican hopefuls been encouraged to publicly endorse it.

"It wasn't designed as a campaign piece, it was designed as a governing agenda," McCarthy said.

Not every GOP hopeful has ignored the pledge. Cory Gardner, who is challenging Rep. Betsy Markey in Colorado's competitive 4th District, endorsed the pledge the day it was announced. In Washington state's open 3rd District, GOP hopeful Jaime Herrera also applauded it, as did Ohio Republican candidate Tom Ganley and a handful of others.

But in this anti-incumbent environment, many candidates appear wary of explicitly embracing an agenda written in Washington by a small group of party leaders.

"What I hear across the 5th District is people are disgusted with Washington and they want change, and they are suspicious of every candidate," Hurt said.

Republican aides in Washington also say privately that although party leaders wanted to craft an agenda, their main goal is to keep the focus on Democrats, particularly because recent polls show that congressional Republicans are even more unpopular.

But their avoidance of the pledge hasn't stopped Democrats from making an issue out of it.

"I think that most of their candidates support what the Republican agenda is, and we're still using it against them," said Ryan Rudominer, spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Accompanying Hurt on his campaign stops last week was former Virginia governor and senator George Allen (R).

Allen said he had heard the pledge mentioned only once, when a student at Liberty University asked about it. But he said it still serves a purpose.

"You need to play tenacious defense against all these bad ideas," he said, referring to Obama administration policies, "but it is equally important, if not more important, to say what we're for."

Staff writer Chris Cillizza contributed to this report.

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