KANSAS CITY, Mo. — With Democrats on defense, Republicans expressed cautious confidence of big gains in the fall elections — particularly in governor's races — though they acknowledged that the GOP must do more to snatch control of Congress from President Barack Obama's party.
Three months before the midterm elections, it was all business and little celebration as the 168-member Republican National Committee met this week to finalize Tampa, Fla., as the 2012 GOP convention city and set the presidential primary calendar. [See who donates the most money to your member of Congress.]
Unlike in years past, no White House hopefuls showed up. And the tone was sober about the GOP's prospects in November; a single sign said: "Playing to win in 2010."
All that reflected the challenge Republicans have ahead of them as they seek to take advantage of conditions that at first blush seem ripe for a power shift in Democratic-controlled Washington.
"We're focused on doing what we have to do to keep the wave going," said Ron Kaufman, a committeeman from Massachusetts. "It's going to grow or crest. And we've got to make sure it grows."
"We've got to start talking about issues," said Pat Brady, the state party chairman in Illinois. "By mid-September, we can't just be the party of 'We aren't the Democrats because people are really fed up."
No one doubts the GOP will win some Democratic-held congressional seats. The president's party nearly always loses seats during the first midterm elections of the presidency. The GOP rank and file also is energized and independent voters are leaning toward Republicans. [See a slideshow of 11 Hot Senate and House Races to Watch this Fall.]
The question is whether Republicans have it together enough to gain 40 in the House and 10 in the Senate to take control of Capitol Hill — with less money than the Democrats, without the White House bully pulpit and as tea party activists expose a fissure between conservatives and moderates in the GOP.
Former Nevada Gov. Bob List, a committeeman, said the GOP needs to do more than simply oppose the policies of Obama and Democrats. Said List: "I don't think we can just win it by default, by being negative."
"We can say 'no' to the deficits and 'no' to the spending, but I think we also need to couple that with 'yes' to where we're going to cut and 'yes' to how we're going to make government run better," he said.
Brady advocated "rebranding" the GOP as "the party of competence, the party of fiscal responsibly, the party of job creation."
The RNC's internal politics hovered over the meeting.
Chairman Michael Steele's 18-month tenure has been rocky, and some committee members privately groused about him. There also was a recent flare-up over spending practices, with the RNC's treasurer accusing Steele of hiding more than $7 million in debt to inflate the party's finances and mislead donors. And there's a dispute over the 2012 primary calendar, too.
The committee was voting Friday on a proposal that would make the process start later than January, when the 2008 primaries began. Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina would be permitted to hold their contests in February 2012, states that divide up delegates proportionally would vote in March and winner-take-all states would go in April.
Two-thirds of the committee must vote to approve the plan, and its adoption was uncertain because of concerns that it would hurt the GOP's eventual nominee. Critics worry about extending the GOP's process when Obama likely won't face a primary.
In other business, the RNC's rules committee is recommending that the 2012 convention attendees adopt a requirement that GOP primary candidates sign a pledge promising not to oppose the party's eventual nominee. Anyone who violates the pledge would have to return any money provided by the RNC.
The proposal follows Florida Gov. Charlie Crist's defection in the state's GOP Senate primary; he's now running as an independent against Republican Marco Rubio.