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GOP Leaders Begin Outreach Effort to Re-energize Party

Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney at a Republican-hosted town hall meeting

Don't call it a comeback.

Republicans, who have suffered two consecutive electoral beatings in Congress and a Senate defection this week, launched on Saturday the first of a series of forums and town hall meetings to engage the American public in policy discussion.

The first event in the series labeled the National Council for a New America was held in northern Virginia. It is a suburban area that went for Obama in the presidential election -- helping him become the first Democratic presidential candidate since 1964 to win the state.

More than 50 people crowded into a pizza parlor to hear former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, House Minority Whip Eric Cantor and former presidential candidate Mitt Romney speak.

While the outreach initiative will cover topics such as the economy, education, energy, health care and national security, GOP leaders began Saturday by explaining their mission.

"Certainly our party has taken its licks over the last couple cycles," Cantor said. "No one is under any illusion about that. But that is why we are here. That is why we started the National Council for a New America because it is important for us to reengage, to partner with the people of this country. To make sure that what happens in Washington is relevant to the challenges they face each and every day."

The GOP leaders have their work cut out out for them. A recent Pew poll found that 22 percent of voters now identify themselves as Republicans compared with 35 percent who say they are Democrats. That is a severe drop-off from the same poll five years ago, which showed Republicans at 30 percent, only down three to Democrats.

In his attempt to rev up the party faithful, Romney said the GOP fight to regain power is a continuation of the U.S. war of independence, casting the Democrats as the loyalists and Republicans as the patriots.

"We are the party of the revolutionaries. They're the party of the monarchists," he said. "They are the party that believes government knows best and that government is the sovereign. 

"And we are the party that believes the people and free people and people pursuing their own dreams are what make America the strongest nation and most powerful nation on earth...and we are going to continue to be revolutionaries," he said.

Though he acknowledged that it will be difficult for the GOP to significantly impact the Obama agenda in the near-term without control of Congress, Romney maintained glass half-full perspective.

"We have an advantage and I don't know that we recognize it as such," he said. "When you have the White house as a party, pretty much all the ideas and the course for your party is going to come out of the White House...communication comes top down. Everybody else has to march behind."

"We have the opportunity instead to come from the grass roots and listen to the people and to look at different options for different strategies by listening to the people of America and having different voices and different Republicans and different leaders step forward and that's what we are going to do," he said. "We are not going to have just one idea that comes from one place."

For his part, Bush said part of the GOP's problem is that the party has been too focused on its past victories instead of developing innovative ideas for the future.

"It's time for us to listen first, to learn a little bit, to upgrade our message a little bit, to not be nostalgic about our past because things do ebb and flow," he said, arguing for the need for the GOP to develop alternative approaches on education, health care and energy. 

"It's nice to remember the good old days when the good guys--if you're a conservative--were in power....but none of that matters right now," he said. "What we need to do is to listen, to learn and then there will be new generation of leaders that will lead."

Bush said that President Obama's quick rise from obscurity, from the Illinois state Senate to the White House, is a "tribute to our country" and said he is convinced that the GOP will find its next leader soon if it focuses on the what instead of the who.

"It will happen on our side as well. There will be great leaders emerging that will be able to communicate these great ideas that are bases on our timeless principles," he said.

"So I am actually optimistic that if we have the humility to start by listening and learning and developing policy first and not worry about the politics, the candidates will come," he added.

Republicans behind the effort told FOX News that the initiative also is meant to counter Obama's portrayal of the Republicans as "the party of 'No.'" The forum, they say, will look to undo any public perceptions of the party as intolerant to new ideas.

"Our brand has been tarnished," House GOP leader John Boehner said Thursday.

"We need to stand up to the administration when they're moving a questionable policies. ... It's important to have a dialogue with the American people," Boehner said.

But Cantor said the effort is "not meant to be exclusive." And a letter penned by Republican congressional leaders on Wednesday says the outreach is "not a Republican-only forum."

The National Council for a New America "will be a dynamic, forward-looking organization that will amplify the common-sense and wisdom of our fellow citizens through a grassroots dialogue with Republican leaders," the letter said.

FOX News' Mosheh Oinounou and Caroline Shively contributed to this report.