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Conservatives see tough challenges on road to White House

By Martina Stewart, CNN Political Producer
updated 7:13 PM EST, Thu February 9, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Conservative politicos say 2012 GOP nominee must push positive agenda against President Obama
  • Ralph Reed: Controversy over contraception coverage may push turnout in swing states
  • Blogger Erick Erickson: "It seems like we are setting ourselves up to lose if the economy improves"
  • Washington Times reporter says GOP candidates haven't come up with clear message in 2012

Washington (CNN) -- Republicans looking to take back the White House in November face a challenging political environment, a trio of conservative political observers said Thursday at an annual gathering of conservative activists.

The recent controversy over health insurance coverage for contraception may help to turn out Catholic swing voters in key states, but the observers also said the Republican Party would do well to have its own positive agenda and clear messaging if it wants to unseat President Barack Obama.

"None of the signs that I see are particularly good," said Ralph Z. Hallow, chief political writer for The Washington Times.

Hallow added that polling he has seen indicates that intensity or enthusiasm about voting has moved from Republicans to Democrats. "I regard that as a very bad sign," he said.

The newspaperman continued, "The enthusiasm among Republican voters for any of the (GOP presidential) candidates is dangerously low so that ... none of these folks generates the enthusiasm needed in November to bring more Republican-voting independents and Republican activists and so on to the polls."

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Conservative blogger Erick Erickson, who is also a CNN contributor, said the situation stems partly from the state of the Republican Party after the last GOP president left the White House.

"I actually blame (George W.) Bush for this," Erickson said to a packed ballroom. "Every president generally has an heir apparent when they leave office."

Vice President Dick Cheney did not succeed Bush as the GOP's presumptive standard bearer in 2008, preventing the party from having a "referendum" on Bush's legacy by either choosing Cheney or someone else as the nominee, Erickson said.

"Because (Bush and Cheney) left a void there, we went all the way back to 2000 and started over again -- a lot of us having the same fights we've had. And we're now in the situation where all the (GOP presidential) candidates, including (Mitt) Romney to a degree, are a bit of a victim of this void that was left by not having an heir," he said.

"I think the Republican Party has yet to reset itself from the Bush years to be able to move forward."

Ralph Reed, founder and chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, appeared less pessimistic than Hallow and Erickson. Reed said he believes that what is shaping up to be a long Republican primary process may work to the GOP's benefit in the general election against Obama.

Reed described the 2012 GOP nomination race as "the most wide open, the most fluid, the most topsy-turvy" presidential primary he has seen since first becoming involved in presidential campaigns in 1980.

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"Whoever emerges from this process -- whether it's Romney or somebody else -- is going to be a better, a more-disciplined, a tougher candidate when they have to stand on a stage with Barack Obama," Reed said.

Reed pointed to the controversy over a pending Obama administration regulation that requires religiously affiliated institutions to provide health insurance coverage for contraception to its employees as one issue that could help fill the enthusiasm gap the GOP is facing with its conservative base.

Reed said the regulation, which the White House has hinted it is looking to soften after an outcry from Catholic bishops, "shows not just an insensitivity to but an outright hostility by this president to religion and religious values."

And, Reed said, the controversy could make the difference with Catholic swing voters in key battleground states, including Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Pennsylvania and Florida.

But Reed and Erickson both opined that to maximize their chances of retaking the White House in November Republicans should have a positive agenda and not settle just for attacking the president's record and policies on the economy and other issues.

"It isn't going to be enough to just be anti-Obama," Reed said. "Whether it's Romney or (Rick) Santorum or (Newt) Gingrich, we have to have a forward-leaning, positive, conservative reform agenda that will excite and energize the grass roots."

With recent indicators suggesting the struggling economy may be improving, the GOP has a particular challenge in November. While unemployment is improving according to recent data, Reed said other economic factors could be in play for voters.

"It's not just the single unemployment number; it's whether people feel like they've got money in their pocket," Reed said.

Erickson said he sees the economy alone as a losing strategy.

"I think the race should be about more than the economy," the blogger said. "Unfortunately, I think the Republicans have decided that they're going to go with electability instead of issues. And if electability is your case and the electability is based on (fixing the economy) and the economy fixes itself, then why do we necessarily need a nominee who the Obama campaign is going to spend millions and millions of dollars on to make unlikable?

"There needs to be something more to it. (Reed) is right. We have to have more of an agenda."

Erickson added that he thought Republicans had "dropped the ball on telling the story of Barack Obama. They never have. They always thought that they could use the economy (against Obama)."

"He picks the winners and losers," Erickson said of Obama, "not the free market. And there's a story to be told there, I think, that resonates with people in the country."

By focusing so much on the economy, Erickson said he fears the GOP is setting itself up for defeat in November. "I hate to be so pessimistic about an election we should win, but it seems like we are setting ourselves up to lose if the economy improves," Erickson said.

Hallow added that he thought the Republican presidential candidates have yet to crystallize clear, concise messages in support of their Oval Office bids.

"Unless the nominee has a message -- a simple message that you can get out in three sentences -- I don't think we have a chance or Republicans have a chance," Hallow said.

Besides Rep. Ron Paul, Hallow asked about the rest of the GOP 2012 field: "Why are any of these candidates running? What is it that they're going to do to change America?"

Pointing to Romney's lengthy economic agenda that is dozens of pages long, Hallow said, "This is not how you do it."

He added, "(Ronald) Reagan did it right and that's going to be necessary again this time."

The three men spoke Thursday during the Conservative Political Action Conference in a panel discussion on the 2012 political landscape that pollster Scott Rasmussen moderated.

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