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Adding to their woes, Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania announced last week that he would switch parties and become a Democrat, citing his disgust with the big-tent party under President Reagan that he said is now far more exclusionary.

Although the three potential Republican candidates had their shirtsleeves buttoned at the wrist during the informal pizza parlor session, they said they planned to roll up their sleeves and get to work rebuilding the party.

“Our party has taken its licks over the last couple of cycles,” Mr. Cantor said. “No one is under any illusion about that. But that’s why we’re here … to re-engage and partner with the people of this country. … We’re looking to the future.”

Said Mr. Romney: “For America to move forward, they’re going to want to see a party that has answers, not politics.”

While he said. “We don’t have to come up with all the answers today, thank heaven,” he added, “but certainly by 2010, we better.”

Mr. Bush was the most forthright of the panel, repeatedly returning to the notion of looking forward, of the need to first and foremost “create a consensus around 21st-century ideas that truly matter for American families.”

“We have principles, we have values. They are the values that are shared by the majority of Americans, there’s no question about it. But we have to now take those principles and values and apply them to the challenges that our country faces today and in the future. …

“And then, hopefully - God willing - [we] embrace our conservative principles and take these new ideas and present them to the American people,” he said.

The message resonated with many of those who turned out at the Pie-Tanza restaurant, right in the heart of a firmly liberal community.

“We don’t have to compromise our beliefs,” said Brian Summers, a black Republican from the District. “This is our party, our country. We should stand strong, stay faithful to what we firmly believe, and go forward.”

But Mike Collins, a former RNC press secretary from Vienna, Va., who now runs a public-relations firm, said there is an urgent need for the party to rethink its strategy.

“We need to be much more articulate and reach out to demographics we’re not reaching right now - Hispanics, suburban women, regions of the country that currently we’re not effectively talking to,” he said.

Mario H. Lopez, president of the Hispanic Leadership Fund, agreed, and he applauds the effort by the Republican leaders.

“It starts with showing up, with listening. It starts with making an effort. We really hope that they’ll do that,” he said.

But the Hispanic leader closed with a warning: “The fact is, if they want to be a governing majority again, they have to do that.”