Washington - Six Republicans hoping to lead their party back from recent national election defeats acknowledged yesterday that they must close a technology gap with Barack Obama and the Democrats and learn to compete in traditionally Democratic states.
In their first, and perhaps only, public debate, the contenders to be the next national Republican chairman avoided attacking each other. But they had surprisingly sharp words of criticism for their party's departing two-term president.
Former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell drew applause from the Republican audience when he compared George W. Bush to Herbert Hoover and charged that Bush "has opened up the door to Mr. Obama's big government."
Michael S. Steele, asked for an example of a time when he stood up to others in the party, recalled response to criticism he leveled during his 2006 Maryland Senate campaign of the federal government's handling of Hurricane Katrina.
"I voiced an issue that, how shall I say, did not go down well at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue," the former lieutenant governor said.
The Republican National Committee's 168 members will choose a new chairman at their winter meeting in Washington later this month. As many as 60 committee members were on hand for the question-and-answer session at the National Press Club, sponsored by a conservative anti-tax group, Americans for Tax Reform.
Mike Duncan, the incumbent who is seeking re-election, seemed to be reflecting the mood of the party officials when he said that while he was proud of his accomplishments as RNC chairman, "we've got to change."
Many of those changes appear to reflect an overt attempt by the Republicans to copy tactics used successfully against them by Democrats in the 2006 and 2008 elections.
Chip Saltsman, a former Tennessee state chairman who managed Mike Huckabee's 2008 presidential campaign, praised the "magic of the Obama campaign" and its decentralized, "open-box" operation as a model for Republicans.
Several Republicans offered their versions of Democratic Chairman Howard Dean's 50-state strategy, which they credited with making Democrats competitive in historically Republican states such as North Carolina and Indiana.
"Look where Obama caught us with our pants down," said Saul Anuzis, the Michigan Republican chairman.
The candidates appeared to blame their party's political problems largely on a failure by elected Republicans in Washington to stick to the party's conservative principles and on an inability to communicate more effectively with Hispanics and other minorities.
Asked to name Bush's biggest mistakes, the contenders were happy to rattle off a list of failings: the 2008 financial bailout, the handling of the Iraq war, Katrina, immigration reform and Social Security reform.
And their comeback strategies seem to center on serving as the loyal opposition - and waiting for Obama and the Democrats to commit blunders - rather than calling for a new Republican message or suggesting that the party shift its positions on key issues.
Katon Dawson, the South Carolina chairman, predicted that Obama would "give us a gift of an overreaching, overpromising administration." Steele said, "We just need to learn to talk to people a little bit better than we have."
Two more forums for RNC members, closed to the news media and public, will be held this week. Several RNC members said in interviews after the initial forum that the contest is still wide open.
If the election of a new Republican chairman comes down to who owns the most guns, Steele could be at a disadvantage.
He was the only candidate who answered "none" when the moderator, Grover Norquist, asked about the contents of their gun closets.
More typical was the response of Blackwell, who said he owns seven guns. Saltsman, whose candidacy might have been hurt after he distributed a comedy CD last month with a song titled "Barack the Magic Negro," countered that he has more than a half-dozen shotguns and handguns at home, "and I'll take you on anytime, Ken."