WASHINGTON — Republicans vying to lead their national party praised President-elect Barack Obama's election campaign on Monday and criticized President George W. Bush for spending too much, mismanaging the Iraq war and bungling the federal government's response to Hurricane Katrina.
With two African-Americans among six men seeking to head the Republican National Committee, all candidates said in a televised debate that their party must do more to attract blacks, Hispanics, young people and other key demographic groups.
"The key to this whole thing is to get out of your comfort zone," said former Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, one of the black candidates. "We are just so comfortable talking among ourselves."
When Steele asked how many of his opponents had ever attended an NAACP meeting, only former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, the other African-American candidate, raised his hand.
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"I know you've been there!" Steele exclaimed to laughter at the National Press Club.
In posing one question to the candidates, Mario Lopez, the head of the conservative Hispanic Leadership Fund, said that Republicans who used "harsh language" on immigration and other issues have reversed the gains Bush had made among Latino voters.
The candidates agreed that their party must become more tolerant of different viewpoints, but none strayed from core GOP stances against abortion, taxes and gun control, as well as for school vouchers and a robust national defense.
The candidates said that the Nov. 4 election results — Obama's win and expanded Democratic majorities in Congress — had prompted soul-searching by Republicans across the country.
"It was a very bitter day for me to stand up there and talk about why we had lost the election," said current RNC chairman Mike Duncan of Kentucky, who's running again. "We did have accomplishments for the Republican Party, but we've got to change."
The 168 Republican National Committee members will elect their new chairman on Jan. 28. While the candidates debated, Obama met with Democratic and GOP congressional leaders on his first day in Washington after a vacation in Hawaii.
Saul Anuzis, the head of the Michigan Republican Party, said that too many Republican officeholders have governed in ways that contradict the party's core tenets of limiting government and encouraging individual opportunity.
"Until the Republican Party returns to principles that matter, we're not going to win," Anuzis said. "Until we start articulating those principles and stop being hypocrites ourselves, we're not going to win."
Chip Saltsman, who ran former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee's White House campaign, put the same sentiment more colorfully:
"People come to Washington as rat killers — and a couple years later, they're 'rodent officials,' and the rats are their constituents."
Despite repeatedly asserting the need for diverse perspectives, there was little policy or philosophy disagreement among the six candidates.
Asked who the best Republican president was, all six named Ronald Reagan.
Asked to name the worst GOP president, four demurred while two chose Depression-era Herbert Hoover.
Their main difference might've been over how much deference to show Obama, whose campaign they praised for its technological and organizational prowess.
Only Katon Dawson, the chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party, predicted that Obama would stumble as president and give the GOP openings in 2010 gubernatorial and congressional races.
"With the Obama administration overreaching and overpromising and building a bigger government, we're going to have an opportunity in our states to elect some very responsible and very conservative candidates," Dawson said.
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