TAMPA, Fla. - As party tents crop up all over the Tampa Bay area, Republicans are grappling with a serious question: How can they yet again become the big-tent party the GOP likely needs to be to capture the Senate and White House?
Recruiting more minority candidates to run for office is a start - a ninth black GOP Congressional candidate could be nominated tonight - but the issue of minority and female voter outreach extends much further than just the demographics of who appears on the ballot.
A recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, taken about a week before the convention, shows that Mitt Romney has zero percent support from black voters, trails President Barack Obama by 10 points among women, is being beaten 2-to-1 among Latinos and lags 11 points behind the president with voters under 35.
"We've never done well with those groups, but think about who this economic downturn has affected the most: blacks, Hispanics, young people," Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) told reporters at a lunch Monday. "I think it's important for our party, we've got to reach out. And that means showing up in their neighborhoods. It's a tall order, but I think it can be done."
Boehner seemed to express skepticism that those sorts of efforts could be made this cycle, though he declined to say so specifically. Instead, he noted that Republicans can begin their effort to woo women and minorities by focusing on jobs and the economy.
"Fifty-percent of college graduates are unemployed or underemployed. And I think our economic message in this election cycle will help us recruit more of those groups that we wouldn't have otherwise," Boehner said. "This election is about economics. These groups have been hit the hardest. They might not come out and vote for our candidate, but I guarantee you, they're not going to come out and vote for the president either."
The trouble so far for Republicans, however, is inherent in the fact that Boehner even needed to address such a question. Between the daunting polling numbers and the controversial remarks about "legitimate rape" made earlier this month by Rep. Todd Akin, the party's Senate nominee in Missouri, the media have paid little attention to Republican efforts to focus on the economy.
Perhaps the first step for Republicans in winning back non-white male voters is admitting they have a problem. And it's an admission that's being made by more and more Republicans here, which is striking merely two years after a wave election in which the GOP didn't need to do much outreach beyond its conservative base.
"I'm very nervous about how divided we are as a country, very nervous about how we're dividing about micro-targeting and boxing everybody in. I want to see the country as a whole. I think we're stronger that way," House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) said. "I come from California, which is much more diverse than the rest of [traditionally Republican states]. I realize ... that within the Republican Party that you have to expand, from the Asian population to Hispanic, we've got places to grow."
McCarthy pointed to the three "first-generation" Republican candidates running now in California in "tough races" as progress for the party, but he differed with Boehner's analysis about widening the base. The No. 3 Republican in the House put the onus on Obama, claiming he is exploiting women and minorities for political gain.
"He's looking at three gaps: women, Hispanic and youth. Instead of good policy, it's on politics. He tries to claim everything is a war on women because 53 percent of the electorate in a presidential race happens to be women," McCarthy said.
The Romney campaign's push for female voters starts tonight with Romney's wife, Ann, and her speech to the convention hall here, which will focus on unity, according to excepts released by his campaign.
"I want to talk not about what divides us, but what holds us together as an American family," Romney is slated to say. "I want to talk to you tonight about that one great thing that unites us, that one thing that brings us our greatest joy when times are good, and the deepest solace in our dark hours. Tonight I want to talk to you about love."