Leading Republican strategists say they're confident they can make gains in Congress next year -- if they focus on issues and train their fire on congressional Democrats as opposed to President Obama.
Resurgent Republic, a conservative research and strategy group, conducted 10 focus groups in five cities with independent voters who supported Obama last year and are undecided about the congressional elections next year. The participants were uneasy about the economy and the huge deficits that Obama's plans are expected to create, and harsh in their assessment of Democratic congressional leaders Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid.
At the same time, Obama has sustained his personal appeal among these voters. "They still like him. They want him to succeed," Whit Ayres, a GOP pollster who co-founded Resurgent Republic, told reporters Monday at a breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor.
Another co-founder, former national GOP chairman Ed Gillespie, said that sentiment was strikingly widespread. "It was across the board. It was everywhere. It was in Montana, in Florida, in Nevada. ...No one said 'I really wish I hadn't voted for that guy. I'm kinda mad at him.' It was just not there."
Gillespie -- perhaps mindful of all that residual loyalty to Obama -- called Obama, his wife and their daughters "very likeable folks and the country should take pride. He's a good man in the White House."
Politics Daily asked the pair whether Rep. Joe Wilson's shout of "You lie" to the president was helpful to the GOP, given Obama's continued personal popularity. Gillespie said Obama's speech to the joint session of Congress was as "politically charged" as a convention speech -- but indicated Wilson's approach won't bring back independents.
"We need to oppose on policy grounds and I think most Republicans do," Gillespie said. "It's important to convey that we're opposing on principle and policy or we won't pull those voters who are drifting away from President Obama and the Democrats into our party, or at least into voting for us."
The focus groups were convened to explore independent voters' anxiety about deficits, an issue Resurgent Republic polls have found is fertile ground for dissatisfaction with Democrats. Gillespie said Republicans need to reclaim the mantle of fiscal discipline that they lost in the last dozen years. "We have to get it back. They're giving us an opportunity to do that," he said of Democrats.
One challenge is to get people to pay attention to any message when you don't have a president to deliver it, and the other side has a president who is a celebrity and historic figure. "He's a very dominating force in the media and our culture," Gillespie said. "It's not just newspapers and '60 Minutes.' It's US magazine. He's everywhere."
Resurgent Republic hired well known Republican polling firms to conduct two focus groups in each of five cities. Here's the breakdown: Columbus, Ohio: independent men and independent women Las Vegas, Nevada: independent women and Hispanic men Virginia Beach, Virginia: voters aged 18-29 and independent men Orlando, Florida: Hispanic women and small business owners Billings, Montana: independent women and independent men
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