NEW ORLEANS — Socialist. Secularist. Liar. National security naif. Republican leaders are calling President Barack Obama all that and more as they jockey early for the party's 2012 nomination. But name-calling alone won't beat the Democratic incumbent.
Even a firebrand like Newt Gingrich concedes that the GOP must be more than naysayers to reclaim control of Congress in November and to seize the White House two years later.
"What the left wants to do is say we're the party of 'no,' " Gingrich told the Southern Republican Leadership Conference, a conservative convention that gave several Republican presidential leaders a chance to audition for the 2012 nomination fight. "I think we should decide we're going to be the party of 'yes.' "
"Republicans can say yes to a balanced budget," he said — and yes to more jobs through tax cuts and yes to getting tough on terrorists.
But, it turns out, saying yes is no easy task. The former House speaker and his fellow GOP presidential aspirants struggled at the conference to articulate a winning vision. Theirs is a delicate balance: offer voters a positive, concrete agenda while defining Obama in a negative light — something conservative voters expect, or even demand, of their candidates.
Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, a former lobbyist and strategist who may seek the presidency, said it will take some time for the Republican Party to iron out its two-sided message.
"It is important to give people something to vote for. I believe that very sincerely," Barbour told state party chairmen and GOP activists Saturday, the conference's closing day.
For now, Republican leaders can't even agree on whether the GOP is the party of yes or no.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry voted no, insisting that Republican congressional candidates must be against Obama and government itself to win in November.
"It's going to take men and women going to Washington, D.C., and saying no," he said, urging GOP candidates to say to voters, "Elect me and I'm going to Washington, D.C,, and will try to make it as inconsequential on your life as I can make it."
Gingrich spelled out what he considers the bad ideas offered by Obama, particularly the health care law. An hour or so before his conference address, Gingrich unloaded on Obama, calling him "the most radical president in American history."
The crowd favorite, former vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, delivered a speech filled with sound bites and invectives. Whatever passing stabs she made outlining fresh policies or vision may have gotten lost in the chorus of negativity.
"There is no shame in being the party of no," she said to loud applause. "When they're proposing an idea that violates our values, violates our Constitution, what's wrong with being the party of no? We're the party of hell no!"
Some in the crowd responded with a "Run, Sarah, Run" chant. She didn't say whether she would seek the presidency, but Palin left little doubt where she stands on the definitive issue of yes or no.
Ron Fournier is Washington bureau chief for the Associated Press.