GOP Seeks Clear Voter Message Amid Clamor

Congressional Republicans are riding a wave of voter discontent. The anemic job market, the record deficit and a year-and-a-half of partisan bickering have tarnished the Democrats' image — especially with independent voters.

Behind the scenes, Republican leaders are working on a unified agenda they hope will win over those independents and seal the deal in November: taking over the House of Representatives.

But coming up with that agenda may be harder than it sounds.

Last summer, Tea Party protesters took over a lot of town hall meetings. Remember all the energy they sparked against President Obama and congressional Democrats? That energy is exactly what Republicans should be focused on, says Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota.

"We shouldn't take it for granted," Bachmann says. "I think that as the American people have rejected the Pelosi-Obama agenda, they haven't necessarily gravitated over to the Republican Party, and I think that's simply because we haven't presented them yet with a message that they might want to gravitate toward, so I think we need to do that."

And that's why Bachmann created the Congressional Tea Party Caucus: to listen to Tea Partiers, she said at a rally, and stake out their agenda.

"They believe that we are taxed enough already, that the federal government should not spend more money than it takes in, and that the Congress should act within the constitutional limitations as given to us by the Founding Fathers," she said. "That is the banner that we believe in."

But the Tea Party doesn't speak for the Republican Party as a whole. In fact, of the 178 Republicans in the House, 46 have joined the Tea Party Caucus so far. That's about the same number as those who belong to the Republican Main Street Partnership — a prominent group of Republican moderates.

Former Rep. Tom Davis of Virginia is that group's president.

"You have to manage the Tea Party," Davis says. "It brings tremendous energy to the election cause, but it also scares away some moderate voters who — they want to send Obama a message, but they're not sure they want to give them a Tea Party."

Davis says the bigger Republican message this fall should be simple: "Do you want to put a check on Obama? Or do you want to write him a blank check?"

It isn't much of an agenda, but then again, it shouldn't be, Davis says. After all, Republicans have no chance of taking control of the whole government this fall — President Obama will still be there. So divided government is the best-case scenario for Republicans — and it tends to appeal to independent voters.

So now, imagine you're a Republican leader, trying to figure out how to propel your party to the finish line this fall. Do you listen to the Tea Party people with all their energy? Or the Main Street coalition and its sway with independents?

Or maybe you go a third way — and ask the people.

Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, the House Republican whip, has gone digital with YouCut, a website set up to allow anyone to vote for programs they think should be cut from the federal budget. This type of information gathering is called crowdsourcing — and it could have a big impact on Republicans' fall agenda.

Or perhaps the website set up by House Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio will do the trick.

AmericaSpeakingOut.com is another crowdsourcing website, but here Republicans are gauging interest in all kinds of ideas, not just budget cuts. From trade and immigration to jobs and the wars, people can vote on what they think the Republican agenda should be. So far, it has generated tens of thousands of ideas.

The problem is, that same breadth — between Tea Partiers and moderates — is reflected on the site. The most popular ideas range from "Hillary Clinton should be tried for treason" to "marijuana should be legalized to block drug traffickers."

Perhaps that's why Boehner has officially endorsed just one agenda item so far: "No bill should be voted on unless it has been available online for at least three days so the American people can see what Congress is doing."

Who could be against that?

Still, building a more substantive Republican agenda? That's a challenge.

This August, with lawmakers home in their districts, the rank and file will test-market ideas while the leadership comes up with a message to campaign on in the fall.

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