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Down but not out, Republicans regroup at RNC winter meeting

John W. Adkisson / The New York Times via Redux Pictures

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Preibus at the luncheon during the RNC's annual winter meeting in Charlotte, N.C., on Thursday.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- At the Republican National Committee's post-mortem meeting in the wake of the stinging 2012 elections -- between the strategy sessions and networking chats -- attitude reigns.

Rather than the demoralized silence of the locker room after a stunning loss, Republicans here have the punchiness and resolve of long-pummeled team coming back to training camp after a particularly bruising season.

"Losing is not fun," said Sally Bradshaw, a member of the RNC's Growth and Opportunity Project -- the official review of what went so gut-wrenchingly wrong last year. "We want to win."

The question of how to win is what's being examined in Charlotte, the same city where Democrats hosted their triumphant convention last summer.

Rather than the specific policy details of immigration, budgeting and deficit -- issues members here say should be debated in the states and by federal lawmakers -- the Growth and Opportunity panel is more focused on strategy, message and tone. Committee members here say they're exploring everything from boosting down-ballot primary candidates to leveraging new email strategies to determining the right timing and number of presidential debates. It’s the mechanics more than the message.

A ruthless sobriety about the party's failures seems almost in vogue. 

"We did get whipped in the presidential election," Mississippi committee member Henry Barbour told reporters Thursday. "That's not something we take lightly." 

There was some talk about the policy missteps the party made in the past election, at least in terms of perception. "We must stop being the stupid party. It's time for a new Republican party that talks like adults," said Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal at his keynote dinner address Thursday night. "It's time for us to articulate our plans and visions for America in real terms. We had a number of Republicans damage the brand this year with offensive and bizarre comments. We've had enough of that." 

GOP: We need to be 'cheerful'
But it's been long enough since the election that the mood here isn't funereal. As grueling as the trudge back to victory may be, attendees say that too much self-reflective moroseness would be contagious to the electorate.  

"What we need to be able to do is get people excited about the cause, about what the Republican Party stands for so that they want to be involved regardless of who our nominee is," said Steve Duprey, an RNC committeeman from New Hampshire.

Duprey, whose cheerful demeanor when traveling with GOP nominee John McCain in 2008 earned him the unofficial title of "Secretary of Fun," says Republicans need to find ways to build the kind of excitement among the GOP grassroots that characterized the relentlessly optimistic Obama volunteers in the last election. 

"And that needs to start a lot earlier," he added. "You don't start that three months before the election and hope to compete and have the depth of organization if the other side's been building theirs for two years." 

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who was greeted with a standing ovation when he spoke to committee members, said that the party should work to be seen as a "happy" one. 

"We need to find a thousand ways to be happy," he observed. 

In an interview, Gingrich said that the future is bright -- if the party accepts a more "cheerful" attitude that makes voters more attuned to the opportunities presented by a Republican economic agenda.

"I believe we're at the edge of an era of extraordinary opportunity, which should allow the party of freedom to cheerfully defeat the party of bureaucracy," Gingrich said. "But I think it requires a new attitude and a new rhythm and, frankly, a willingness to learn."

Ari Fleischer, former press secretary for George W. Bush and another member of the outreach committee, says that the party's structural tweaks should be steered toward finding standard-bearers who reflect that optimism. 

"Voters respond to candidates they like," Fleischer said. "And if you have an upbeat, optimistic, affable, ideological, strong candidate that's one of the most important factors and we want to design a process here that allows the voters to pick that candidate." 

Jindal, himself regarded as a possible 2016 presidential candidate, told attendees Thursday night that the time for pessimism is long over. 

"I'm not calling for a period of introspection and navel gazing. Far from it," Jindal said. "I'm calling for us to get busy winning the argument ... and then, after that … winning the next election."


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