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updated: 11/7/2012 12:54 PM

Republicans: Get more conservative or ease off?

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  • Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney arrives to his election night rally, Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2012, in Boston. President Obama defeated Republican challenger former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

      Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney arrives to his election night rally, Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2012, in Boston. President Obama defeated Republican challenger former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

 
Bloomberg News

WASHINGTON -- The feud within the Republican Party after the shock of losing to an incumbent president weakened by four years of economic discontent started before the votes were even counted.

The political trauma over Republican Mitt Romney's defeat by President Barack Obama was compounded by the party losing ground in the Senate.

"If I hear anybody say it was because Romney wasn't conservative enough, I'm going to go nuts," Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said in a Nov. 5 interview with Politico. "We're not losing 95 percent of African-Americans and two-thirds of Hispanics and voters under 30 because we're not being hard-ass enough."

Republicans, who haven't won the presidency since 2004, are headed for an internal battle over whether the party's future rests in reaching back to a tradition of moderation or pressing ahead with the anti-government tone of a tea party movement that dominated its primaries and alienated critical voting blocs -- notably the Hispanic community.

Newt Gingrich, a former House speaker and a contender for the Republican presidential nomination this year, said Wednesday that party strategists were mistaken in believing the unemployment rate and struggling economy would doom Obama to a one-term presidency.

"We were wrong," he said on "CBS This Morning." He and other Republicans, such as Karl Rove, former President George W. Bush's chief political adviser, "misunderstood what was happening in the country."

Part of the "rethinking" party leaders should do is how to appeal to Hispanics and other demographic groups who supported Obama's re-election, Gingrich said.

"Unless we do that we're going to be a minority party," he said.

Strategist Ron Bonjean, a former communications adviser to Republican House and Senate leaders, said the party's wing that opposes abortion rights and same-sex marriage is poised to portray Romney's loss as a repudiation of nominating more moderate candidates.

"They will likely call him a flawed candidate," Bonjean said. "There's going to be an element of Republicans who don't think they went conservative enough."

Indeed, minutes after major television networks called the race for Obama, Jenny Beth Martin, national coordinator of Tea Party Patriots, sent an email to reporters blaming the loss on "a weak moderate candidate, hand-picked by the Beltway elites and country-club establishment wing of the Republican Party. The presidential loss is unequivocally on them."

Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, a Washington-based group that has gotten most Republican lawmakers to sign a pledge not to raise taxes, struck a defiant tone, saying the party's success in maintaining control of the House means it will be able to thwart Obama's agenda.

"To deserve to govern in 2014 Republicans should maintain their opposition to tax and spend and continue to present a vision for the future that includes tax reform and entitlement reform," Norquist said.

In the Senate, Democrats retained control by holding on to seats in Virginia, Montana and Missouri. If Maine independent Angus King caucuses with the Democrats, as expected, Republicans will lose at least one seat and possibly two in an election year they began with party leaders anticipating they would gain control of the chamber.

Charles Krauthammer, a conservative political columnist, dismissed Romney as "a transitional figure" on Fox News. "He's a Northeastern liberal, and that's not where we're going," Krauthammer said. "That's not where the future of the Republican party is."

Krauthammer said a new generation of Republican leaders, such as Romney's running mate Paul Ryan and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, will give the party a more conservative bent.

Other divisions among Republicans surfaced as the ballots were being cast. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a leading Romney supporter, engaged in a public spat with the candidate's aides over his praise for Obama's handling of superstorm Sandy.

Christie, who delivered the keynote address at the Republican National Convention in August, blasted "know- nothing" campaign staffers as the source of reports of tension between him and Romney over his appearance with Obama during a presidential visit to survey the damage from the storm.

Other party activists pointed to Senate seats Republicans had expected to win that were lost after inflammatory comments by Tea Party-backed nominees.

In Missouri, Republican candidate Todd Akin was defeated after saying in an Aug. 19 television interview that "legitimate rape" rarely results in pregnancy. In Indiana, candidate Richard Mourdock lost after saying in a debate with Democratic opponent Joe Donnelly that pregnancy caused by rape is something "God intended" and doesn't justify abortion.

Tom Davis, a former Virginia congressman who once led House Republicans' national campaign effort, said the struggle over the party's direction will play out over the next three years mostly in nomination battles on the state and national levels.

Romney was "the strongest candidate we had" in the field of presidential contenders, though his background as a private- equity executive was "made to order for Obama's populist campaign," Davis said.

The party now must face demographic changes in the nation as the portion of minority voters grows and the rising generation of younger voters moves away from the Republican party, Davis said.

According to exit polls, the electorate was 72 percent white -- a group Obama lost with 40 percent to Romney's 58 percent -- and 13 percent African-American, a bloc that gave the president 93 percent of its votes. Obama won Hispanic voters, who comprised 10 percent of the electorate, 71 percent to 27 percent for Romney, a slightly worse outcome for the Republican than in 2008, when Obama carried Latinos 67 percent to Arizona Senator John McCain's 31 percent.

"Instead of them curling up in the ball and asking, 'Where did we lose conservative whites,' we need to add people to the coalition," Davis said of the Republicans. "There are just not enough old white guys around."

That means "different messengers" such as a more prominent role for such figures as Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, a son of immigrants from India, and Rubio, a Cuban- American, Davis said. The party also will need to come up with a "different approach" to immigration, he said.

"The big issue the Republican party is going to have to wrestle with is the Hispanic issue," Ari Fleischer, White House press secretary in the George W. Bush administration, said on CNN. "The Republicans are going to have to figure out a different way forward" on immigration.

With no incumbent seeking re-election, the crop of 2016 presidential candidates will start showing up in Iowa as early as next year, say those familiar with the state where presidential campaigns are born.

Ryan is well-positioned for a run. He is a darling of the Republican base and didn't make any unforced errors during the aggressive campaign schedule he kept after Romney picked him in August.

Having won re-election in his home district, Ryan, 42, is still a member of Congress. And as chairman of the House Budget Committee, he has a natural platform to expand his presence as one of his party's top leaders.

Rubio is another often-mentioned name. He introduced Romney at the nominating convention and won strong reviews for what was his biggest appearance yet in the national spotlight.

Rubio, 41, would bring to any presidential candidacy strong ties to Florida, the biggest Electoral College prize among the swing states that have determined recent elections.

Another Floridian, former governor Jeb Bush, also is likely to see his name in the mix, especially if his party returns to a more centrist approach. Bush has advocated an inclusive approach to the electorate for his family's party.

Bush, 59, who served two terms as Florida's governor from 1999 to 2007, is a brother of former President George W. Bush and son of former President George H.W. Bush.

Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana might look at the presidency again. His deficit-fighting credentials gave him national appeal among Republicans, although he announced in May 2011 that he wouldn't run in 2012, citing family considerations. Daniels, 63, takes over as president of Purdue University in Indiana in January, when his term as governor ends.

Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, 56, a Romney running-mate finalist, also expanded his national reach this year.

He served as Romney's sparring partner for debate practice sessions and as one of his top surrogates in Ohio and on television. No Republican has won the presidency without carrying Ohio, so his native-son status carries an appeal.

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