Republicans on the Hunt for Messengers as Party Moves to Reconnect With Voters

As Republicans try to hit the right message in a bid to re-engage the American public, they're also on the hunt for the right messengers. 

The GOP, which launched a new campaign over the weekend to market Republican ideas to voters, is placing a high priority on recruitment -- part of its attempt to stop the bleeding of Republican seats in Washington, D.C, and local governments across the country. 

"We're interested in quality," said Frank Donatelli, chairman of Republican recruiter GOPAC. 

The recruitment push is unavoidably part of the GOP quest for identity and leadership. President Obama, an untraditional candidate from an untraditional background, helped Democrats define themselves and win over followers during the end of the Bush years. Now Republicans are looking in out-of-the-ordinary places for candidates who can enthuse Americans and pick up seats in their name. 

With the build-up of recruits underway, party leaders are hopeful and holding up their efforts scouting politicians like Van Tran, a California assemblyman and the first Vietnamese-American elected to a state legislature. 

Republicans want him to unseat Democratic Rep. Loretta Sanchez in Congress next year. 

On the local level, New Hampshire state Rep. Marilinda Garcia, who won a special election for the seat last month, also has been getting some attention. The musician and court-appointed advocate for abused children is 26 years old, a woman and Latina, out-of-the-ordinary traits for a Republican candidate. 

Donatelli, who through GOPAC focuses on finding Republicans to run in state and local races, said his group is combing the field for "non-traditional" candidates. 

That covers members of any demographic group that doesn't traditionally vote Republican in large numbers -- Hispanics, blacks, union members, young people and women, as well as other minorities. By recruiting them, the party hopes to appeal to a broader base. 

"We want to make a special effort, I think, to reach out and bring together a broader spectrum of candidates that might, over time, grow the Republican base," Donatelli said. 

He said the party, on the local level, is also looking for well-known community leaders, including business men and women, who are skilled speakers and know how to talk specifics when addressing GOP priorities. 

"Sometimes we talk in generalities, and I think voters are a lot more discerning today," he said.
Paul Lindsay, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said the same criteria apply in the search for U.S. House and Senate candidates. He said community leaders, not necessarily office-holders, and people from "non-traditional" backgrounds are in high demand. 

He provided a list of recent GOP recruits for congressional races that showed promise. The list included Tran in California. It also included Honolulu City Councilman Charles Djou and Manchester, N.H., Mayor Frank Guinta. All would be challenging Democrats for Congress in their respective states. 

"It's still early in the cycle, but we're off to a solid start in recruiting community leaders who have their own brand and can expand the playing field in seats currently held by Democrats," Lindsay said in an e-mail. 

Donatelli said he's optimistic about the legislative and gubernatorial elections later this year in Virginia and New Jersey. As an example of the kind of candidate the party is looking for, he pointed to the Republicans' Virginia candidate for governor, former state Attorney General Bob McDonnell. (McDonnell could face a daunting rival, though, in potential Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe, a Bill Clinton ally and former Democratic National Committee chairman.) 

Recent local GOP standouts also include two successful Republicans in New Hampshire. One is Garcia, Donatelli said. The other is Jeb Bradley, who won a New Hampshire Senate special election last month. 

In some cases, though, Republicans are taking two steps back before taking one step forward. Bradley is a former U.S. congressman who lost his seat in 2006 to Democrat Carol Shea-Porter, and lost his bid to reclaim it last year. 

Guinta is expected to take up the challenge against Shea-Porter next time around. Garcia, too, recently lost a state House seat before re-joining the legislature in the special election. 

Donatelli said he hopes the party can take many more steps forward in the 2010 election. 

"If you're thinking about running, '10 is a good year for a Republican," he said, noting historical trends that show the party that does not hold the White House typically gains elsewhere in the first off-year election. 

On the national level, the search for recruits has an added layer of pressure to it given the high-profile GOP retirements on the horizon -- including those of U.S. Sens. George Voinovich in Ohio, Sam Brownback in Kansas, Mel Martinez in Florida and Kit Bond in Missouri. 

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told FOX News the party can roar back if it can just find the right people. He said the central GOP message on national security and the economy resonates with key voting blocs like independents. 

"We just need to get people that can sell," Graham said. "Politics are not the problem. (It's) the messengers." 

On the heels of a recent poll showing former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge competitive with Republican-turned-Democratic Sen. Arlen Specter in his 2010 Senate race, Graham said Ridge could win that race. He also talked up Rep. Mike Castle to take Vice President Biden's former Delaware Senate seat and Rep. Mark Kirk to take the seat now held by Sen. Roland Burris in Illinois. 

"We've got some people out there that could be competitive in blue states," Graham said. "There are 100 senators -- 50 states with two senators -- do the math. We've got to win more than just the south and the Midwest." 

The northeast looks pretty bleak for the GOP. The House GOP lost its last member in New England when former Connecticut Rep. Chris Shays lost to Jim Himes in November. 

Nationwide, GOP leaders face a steep climb to reconnect with Americans. 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. 

The Republican Party lost another seat last week when Specter switched to the Democratic side. And Democrat Scott Murphy recently won the airtight contest for the upstate New York House seat previously held by Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand, who replaced Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the Senate. Democrats hailed the race as further proof voters continue to reject Republicans as the "party of no." 

In a memo last month, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., said that his party is recruiting "top notch" candidates and that the New York race was the "first test" of Democrats' economic message. 

Republicans acknowledge they are trailing in the recruiting game in certain areas. 

"What we have not done a good job in, and especially, I believe, in the northeast, is recruiting the kind of candidates who can win, and that's what we have to do," Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., told "FOX News Sunday." 

"The Democrats have done a much better job of identifying people who they think could win in particular states, and I don't think that we've done a really good job of that, and we need to get back to that." 

Ensign suggested the party look for moderates to carry the mantle of the party, an argument that stirs fierce debate among conservatives. 

"Unfortunately, you know, in the Republican Party, some people have wanted to get almost -- to have too pure of a party," he said. "Obviously, I'm a conservative. ... But if you're going to be a national party and you're going to be in the majority in Washington, D.C., or in most states, you're going to have to welcome people who maybe vote differently, who look at issues differently." 

Another challenging territory is the West coast, but Republicans apparently have their eyes set on it. On behalf of the NRCC, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., just took a recruiting trip to Oregon to find GOP candidates to run against Democratic House members there. Lindsay said he landed Springfield Mayor Sid Leikin to challenge Democratic Rep. Peter DeFazio. 

Stuart Rothenberg, editor of the Rothenberg Political Report, said he thinks despite the challenges, Republicans will at least be able to recruit more effectively than during the last cycle. 

"I think it's going to be challenging, because the Republican brand is damaged, because the president's doing well," he said. "On the other hand, without the baggage of George Bush," 2010 might be more favorable. 

FOXNews.com's Judson Berger contributed to this report.