MIAMI — Eager to get beyond last week's electoral disaster, Republicans came to Florida on Wednesday to surround themselves with models of political success: youthful and moderate governors such as Charlie Crist, Bobby Jindal and Tim Pawlenty.
But it didn't bolster spirits much.
Eight days after Sen. Barack Obama's historic presidential victory, the sense of gloom only deepened at a meeting of the Republican Governors Association as GOP leaders spoke candidly about how far they have fallen and how big a rebuilding job lies ahead.
Taking stock of their diminished status at a bayfront hotel, Republicans said they lost the youth vote and Hispanic vote to Democrats, and what progress they made with black voters in years past now appears gone as voters celebrate the nation's first African-American president. This crowd is primarily male and white, which underscores the party's need for more diversity.
Not one Republican is in Congress from the six New England states, and Democrats are making inroads in the Great Lakes states and Mountain West.
"We're fundamentally staring down a demographic shift that we've never seen before in America," said Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman.
Furthermore, scandalized by figures such as Ted Stevens, Jack Abramoff and Mark Foley, Republicans are seen as the more ethically challenged party.
It gets worse: Republicans lost their Internet edge as Obama maximized the use of MySpace, Facebook, Twitter and a bank of 10-million e-mail addresses for voter outreach and fundraising. Democrats even took the holy grail issue of taxes away from the GOP, which also has been tagged as the party of huge deficits and the "bridge to nowhere."
"When the Republican Party is no longer the party of fiscal conservatism, clearly we've lost our way," Jindal said.
America is still a "center-right" country, pollster Frank Luntz said, but polls show a majority of Americans see the Republican brand only as right, not center.
He said Sen. John McCain won fewer votes among young people (age 18-29) than any presidential candidate in modern history. But because Republicans are completely out of power in the White House and Congress, the GOP's positive solutions to problems such as health care, energy and education will have to come from the nation's statehouses.
The downbeat mood was evident when pollster Luntz made an attempt to joke about the corruption conviction of Alaska Sen. Stevens, saying he was going from being a Senate institution to "living in an institution." The ballroom fell silent.
Several speakers said that it would be a drastic mistake for Republicans to judge the election results as an aberration or the result of flaws with McCain's candidacy and that without a strong rebuilding effort, the party could slide into irrelevancy.
Jindal said Republicans have to remake themselves as the party of the "American dream," and Pawlenty said states must become "idea factories" where 22 Republican governors work to improve schools, develop alternative energy sources and safeguard the environment.
A top business executive framed the party's' problem in starkly commercial terms.
"Republicans are losing market share at an alarming rate," said Meg Whitman, the former eBay chief and early Mitt Romney backer who played a major role in McCain's campaign. After last week's debacle, if the Republican Party were a corporation, "Heads would roll. Things would change," she said.
Florida GOP chairman Jim Greer said he was disappointed to hear his fellow Republicans spend so much time analyzing last week's losses.
"I know what happened. I was there," Greer said.
He, like Crist, said the party's path to relevance involves a moderate, big-tent approach and a massive effort to connect with Hispanics and African-Americans. He said the lesson of Obama's success is to be willing to try things the "experts" say won't work, such as sending Michelle Obama to campaign in the rural, conservative Florida Panhandle.
At the Hotel Intercontinental in downtown Miami, Florida's Gov. Crist was in his element, surrounded by hordes of reporters and camera crews eager to get his assessment of his party and his state. With Florida leading the nation in job losses, he was asked how he would win a second term in 2010 if the economy doesn't improve.
Crist said he has not yet decided whether to run again.
Steve Bousquet can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.