- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The struggle to settle on a speaker for Monday’s big congressional Republican fundraising dinner underscores the tough time the party is having finding national leaders to help them form a message and go head-to-head with President Obama.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich ended up headlining this year’s Senate-House Republican dinner, capping an awkward back-and-forth in which Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin’s advisers in Washington initially agreed for her to deliver the keynote speech only to have her Alaska office later argue that she never committed. The party’s former vice-presidential nominee was then reinvited to attend but told she could not speak out of fear she might upstage Mr. Gingrich.

Despite the back-and-forth, the event’s sponsors — the National Republican Congressional Committee and the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) — said the dinner had raised $14.45 million to aid Republican congressional candidates in the upcoming election cycle.

“We simply have to take both of them back,” NRSC Vice Chairman Orrin G. Hatch of Utah said of the two chambers.

Rep. Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin added: “We’ve got to be the reform party we used to be. We’ve got to be the party of ideas.”

Mr. Gingrich, who stepped down from the House a decade ago, recently earned headlines for describing Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor as a “Latina racist” on the social networking site Twitter.com, a comment he later backed away from. But he was given a rock star’s welcome at Monday night’s dinner at the Washington Convention Center, receiving a standing ovation after a speech that spanned American history, judicial philosophy and economic policies.

“The challenge for the Obama administration is simple: Americans know better,” Mr. Gingrich said, citing the president’s plan to shut down Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba, which has stalled in Congress. “Reagan used his rhetorical skills to shine light on truths and fundamental facts. Obama uses his rhetorical skills to hide fundamental facts.”

Mr. Gingrich, like Republican analysts, appeared to shrug off the Palin drama as inside-the-Beltway chatter, giving the hockey-mom-turned-politician a public welcome. “I felt, looking at John McCain and Sarah Palin [tonight], this country would have been amazingly better off had they been in the White House,” he said.

Since Mr. Obama’s victory over Sen. John McCain of Arizona in November, Democrats have mocked the Republican Party for recycling former leaders while attempting to paint polarizing figures such as talk-radio host Rush Limbaugh and former Vice President Dick Cheney as titular party heads.

But Republicans pointed out that it’s not surprising to find a field of several potential leaders after losing the White House, and argued that electoral success hinges more on ideas than a single party leader. “After [the loss of Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry] 2004, before Barack Obama, the Democrats didn’t really have a leader,” said Republican strategist Kevin Madden.

Other analysts downplayed the Palin drama as inside-the-Beltway chatter. “In the end, she’s coming to the dinner and it’s all much ado about nothing,” veteran Republican strategist Ron Bonjean said.

But the behind-the-scenes intrigue did little to help promote Republican Party unity. In addition to Mr. Gingrich, a possible 2012 presidential contender, former 2008 presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee — both of whom appear interested in reviving their campaigns for the White House — have been active on the public circuit, appearing on television and campaigning for Republican candidates across the country.

Mr. Gingrich, who stepped down from the House a decade ago, recently earned headlines for describing Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor as a “Latina racist” on the social-networking site Twitter.com, a comment he later backed away from.

After two bruising election cycles, the Republican Party is eyeing next year’s midterm contest as a chance to redeem itself as the party of fiscal responsibility amid a trend of record-setting spending by Democrats.

As part of that effort, Mr. Gingrich said, Republicans should not be afraid of interparty debates between moderates and more conservative members of the party.

“I am happy that [former Vice President] Dick Cheney is a Republican. I am also happy that Colin Powell is a Republican,” he said. “A majority Republican party will have lots of debates within the Republican party — that is the nature of a majority.”

Republicans are particularly focused on the Senate, where Democrats will have 60 votes if disputed Minnesota Senate candidate Al Franken is seated. The Republicans will have to work hard to keep the seats of retiring Sens. George V. Voinovich of Ohio, Christopher S. Bond of Missouri and Mel Martinez of Florida in the Republican column next year while it holds out some hope of knocking off a few Democrats up for re-election.

The party has set its sights on defeating veterans Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut as well as newly appointed Sens. Roland W. Burris of Illinois and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York. Republican-turned-Democrat Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania is also being targeted by his former party after switching sides ahead of next year’s re-election battle, though he could face a tough primary if Democratic Rep. Joe Sestak decides to challenge him.

Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire has said he would not seek re-election next year but has acknowledged pressure from his Republican colleagues to reconsider his decision.

House Republicans, meanwhile, are looking to narrow the Democrats’ margin of power, which is 256 to 178.

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