Where Does The Republican Party Go From Here? After George Bush's unpopular presidency and John McCain's decisive defeat, there is a battle underway for the soul of the Republican Party. Conservative leaders weigh in on how to reinvigorate the GOP.
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Where Does The Republican Party Go From Here?

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Where Does The Republican Party Go From Here?

Where Does The Republican Party Go From Here?

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This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. One week after an election that can only be described as a Democratic triumph, a battle is underway for the future of the Republican Party. Among the questions, did voters reject a deeply unpopular president or the principals of his party? Does the GOP need to become more moderate on social issues and immigration to appeal to young people, independents and Latinos? Or was John McCain not conservative enough to energize Reagan Democrats? And who leads the party now? Republican governors meet in Miami tomorrow, they include potential presidential contenders like Charlie Crist of Florida, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Sarah Palin of Alaska. And on Capitol Hill, a diminished Senate Republican conference gathers next week, to elect its leaders for the next Congress.

So, Republicans, we want to hear from you today. What does your party need to do to revitalize itself and win more votes? Our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org and click on Talk of the Nation. Later in the program, what's the strangest thing you've ever received in the mail that wasn't in a box or an envelope? You can email us that now, talk@npr.org is our address again. But first, the future of the Republican Party. We begin with Michael Gerson, as assistant to the president. He used to be the principal speech writer for George W. Bush. He's now a columnist for the Washington Post and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He's been kind enough to join us today in Studio 3A. Nice to have you back in the program.

Mr. MICHAEL GERSON (Columnist, The Washington Post; Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations): It's great to be with you again.

CONAN: And it seems that different elements of the party are taking away different lessons from last Tuesday.

Mr. GERSON: Well, it's extraordinary in the aftermath of a major loss, how everyone seems to interpret the result as the affirmation of the views they had before the election. So, you know, some people are claiming that we weren't hard enough on immigration. And some people are claiming or saying, well, how can you win national elections without Hispanics? And so, you're giving a lot of this about the role of government. That we're not offering solutions to, you know, that people can count on in this environment, or that we shouldn't be offering any solutions because the problem is government is too big. And so, you're beginning to see the outlines of this major argument. I would say, Republicans now with a shock over are comforting themselves in a couple of things.

One of them is that the loss was not anywhere near the low points of Democrats, say in 1972 or 1984, where they won one state in the circumstance. So, you know, even in the most difficult of environments, the Republican Party and its candidate did maybe exceed in some of the worst possible outcomes. And the situation in Congress was more of a category three hurricane than a category five hurricane. You know, it turned out that there were significant losses and I think it's, you know, in some cases important losses. But it wasn't a complete wipe out. There's still the kind of elements of a leadership there.

CONAN: And some people though say there are some disturbing trends. Obviously, after a loss, there have to be some. But there's no Congressional Republican from the New England states for the first time in the history of the party. Some people say, in fact, the party has become regionalized to being largely a southern party.

Mr. GERSON: Well, I think there's a serious argument there that is going to be hard to be a National Party when you consistently lose both coasts. And that's a significant problem and we were finding that in the exit polling that somebody like Governor Palin was deeply unpopular on the coasts, among college-educated people, in the suburbs and excerpts. Well, wildly popular in other parts of the country, particularly the Republican base, there is a tension there that Republicans are going to have to work out as they move forward.

CONAN: We're talking with Michael Gerson about the future of the Republican Party. We'll have some other guests joining us in a couple of minutes. If you'd like to join the conversation, give us a call, 800-989-8255, email us talk@npr.org. We want to hear from Republicans today. Let's begin with Rob. And Rob is with us from Boise in Idaho.

ROB (Caller): Hi, Neal. How are you?

CONAN: I'm well, thank you.

ROB: Well, you had asked a moment ago whether or not the core Republicans were unhappy with the candidates or unhappy with the direction of the party. And I would submit that, it's the direction of the party. It's the party of fiscal conservancy, and yet, the vast majority of deficits that had been run up in this country have been run up by Republicans. Reagan, Bush one, Bush two. It's a party of individual liberty and state's rights and yet, they want to intervene on the Terri Schiavo case, they want to ban gay marriage, they want to ban pretty much everything having to do with homosexuality, and I'm just - I think there's a disturbing shift away from the core values of the party.

CONAN: Would you describe yourself as - I don't mean to be putting words in your mouth, Rob - as sort of on the libertarian wing of the party?

ROB: I believe that would be correct, yes. And we've strayed entirely from the core values, I think, that the party once embraced.

CONAN: Michael Gerson, certainly people - well, a lot of people were upset by what they saw as George W. Bush's big government conservatism.

Mr. GERSON: Well, I think it's very, very difficult to argue when it's modern history that the Republican Party has ever been the Libertarian party. And it's also hard to argue that the election of Obama was an indication of libertarian ideals in the United States. I think the problem - you know, I would diagnose a little differently. Many of the issues that Republicans have won on for 20 or 30 years - crime, welfare, you know, 70 percent top marginal tax rates, all of those issues that brought the Reagan Coalition so much success have faded largely because of Republican's success on those issues. And now the terrain out there, whether it's health care or environment or income ability in the United States, it seems like a foreign land to a lot of Republicans.

A lot of the old ideas don't seem to apply as directly. A lot of the concerns that people have aren't addressed so much by Republican approaches. So, I think the Republican - you know, there are some that are saying; we just need to go back to Ronald Reagan and that means being anti-government, which by the way Ronald Reagan really wasn't anti-government. But - and then there's another group emerging in the party that says, well, we've got to apply conservative and free market ideas to modern problems and concerns that people have, you know, these are more reformist Republicans. I think that they are represented in more people like Bobby Jindal maybe and, you know, the governor, Tim Pawlenty, some of the other emerging leaders.

CONAN: Governor of Minnesota.

Mr. GERSON: Yeah, exactly. And so, you know - and I think there are rising young conservative leaders in the House of Representatives in particular, Eric Canter or I mean - what's his name - Paul Ryan, that are beginning to show some of that kind of leadership. They take limited government arguments very seriously. They're not pro-big government. But it's impossible to be a national presidential candidate without offering solutions now on health care, for example, where many - much of the discontent is coming from businesses not just, you know, traditional liberal constituencies. And I think Republicans are going to need to address those things in positive ways and find an attractive leader who's willing to do the same.

CONAN: Rob, does the party need to find ways to address issues like health care, people's concerns about unemployment? I think Rob has left us, I apologize for that. Anyway, Rob was calling us from Boise, and let's see if we can get another caller on the line. And let's go to Jean. And Jean is with us from Cleveland in Ohio.

JEAN (Caller): Yeah. Hi, Neal. It's interesting because I never considered myself Democrat or Republican. But this year, I felt very Republican, and I did vote for John McCain. I felt that - or I should say I feel that the Republican Party is moving away from the reality that in general, the population of the United States tends to be centrist. But the further left or the further right either party goes the more abandoned, I think the voters feel. I feel that on women's issues, that the Republican Party has just kind of ignored it. Personally, there are a lot of issues I don't think the government even belongs in, but that's neither here nor there, it is there, so that's the way we have to deal with it. But when it comes to business and the economy, I think the Republicans are perhaps the only ones who truly get it, to look at things that will be attractive to business to keep them on our shores and have a vital economy that includes all parties.

CONAN: So those issues - those economic issues more important to you, Jean, than the social issues like the women's issues you talked about.

JEAN: Well, you know something. I think they're about even. To tell you the truth, I'm 54 and the older I get, the more economically-focused I become. I suppose that's because retirement is looming. But I do have daughters and I am concerned that the world should be fair to them, and their health issues should be addressed in a fashion that they feel they need to be addressed.

CONAN: And are we talking about reproductive issues here?

JEAN: Basically, and I also think that - that's actually where I think the government does not belong. But we're there, it is part of the government policy now and it's always part of the dialog when it comes to elections unfortunately. I think it kind of detracts from the real issues such as military defense, the economy, and overall policies and programs that benefit the entire population such as health care and welfare.

CONAN: And Michael Gerson, Jean represents, I think, a fair number of voters, particularly in the northeastern and on both coasts, as she suggests.

Mr. GERSON: No, I agree with that. It also points up though one of the major challenges of Republicans going into this election. Republicans are often trusted in, you know, in tough economic times, being growth-oriented, you know, low tax. But the reality here is that six weeks before the election, we had a massive financial meltdown that was associated largely with the Republican - with the Republican Party fairly or unfairly. So I think it tilted a lot of voters in this country who were considering John McCain in a variety of ways. John McCain was no radical on cultural and social issues.

He had a fairly moderate record on a variety of issues. I think that under normal circumstances, many voters would've considered that as a - you know, John McCain as a centrist on many of these things. But the reality is that this blow to the economy came at just the wrong moment and undermined McCain and Palin's appeal on these issues. I think that that's the immediate context for the election, which was pretty even before the crisis. It was not going to be a blowout election. I think the longer term problem though is the one that I was talking about, that there are, you know, there are a number of issues on the horizon that are of deep concern. I mean, I'll take one issue - environmental issues, which used to be very partisan. They are not partisan anymore. Republicans have to have a message on those things as well.

CONAN: Jean, thanks very much for the phone call. We appreciate it.

JEAN: Thank you.

CONAN: We're talking with Michael Gerson about the future of the Republican Party. A dispute is underway within the GOP as to its future, how it should align itself ideologically, how it appeals to moderates, independents, Latinos, young people, the people it lost many of in this last election. When we come back, Rick Santorum and Tom Davis will join us. This is Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Since the election, the op-ed pages have been full of advice for Republicans in today's Wall Street Journal. Henry Olson with the American Enterprise Institutes writes: Our principles can flourish only if our policies resonate with average Americans who deal with concrete problems in a world resistant to radical change. David Brooks in today's New York Times argues, in the near term, the traditionalists are going to win the fight for supremacy in the GOP. Among the remaining members, he writes, the popular view is that Republicans had been losing because they haven't been conservative enough.

Today, we're talking about the battle for the soul of the GOP. Republicans, we want to hear from you today. What does your party need to do to revitalize itself and win more votes? 800-989-8255, email talk@npr.org. Our guest is Michael Gerson, who was the assistant to President Bush and chief speech writer. He is now a columnist for the Washington Post. And joining us now are two former members of Congress, Republicans both: Rick Santorum, the former United States senator for Pennsylvania and currently a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. And Senator Santorum, nice of you to be with us today.

Mr. RICK SANTORUM (Senior Fellow, Ethics and Public Policy Center): Thank you Neal. Good to be with you and your guests.

CONAN: Also with us, Congressman Tom Davis, who represents Virginia's 11th congressional district and elected not to run for re-election at this time. And Congressman Davis, nice to have you with us.

Congressman TOM DAVIS (Republican, Virginia): My pleasure, thanks for having me.

CONAN: And let me ask you both. And senator, why don't we start with you. How do you see the lessons of last Tuesday playing out in the future of the Republican Party?

Mr. SANTORUM: Well, I think - I had listened to Mike's comments before the break. And I think Mike hit the nail on the head that we have certain strength as a party. I think the fact that this party has been a pro-growth party, has been a party of opportunity, not wealth redistribution but wealth creation, is very much in synch with the vast majority of Americans, and I think the record over the few years in the economic problems was, you know, it was a real problem for us because it flew in the face of what I think this party is known for and has been strong on.

And we didn't - our nominee and our party didn't do a very good job of laying out what the problems were and what they were caused by, and we got caught up in a bad situation. I think our party is also very strong on the issues of America being strong, America being a decisive voice in the world and keeping us safe through strength. Those are two areas that - I just don't see the Republican Party back pedaling on. I think that's at the heart of who we are. And Mike mentioned an issue, I think, that is a good one to talk about, is environment. We have not been very - we haven't been very good on that. We've been a little too strident in dealing with that issue. And there are a lot of good conservative principles that can be applied to make sure that we conserve and that we are good husbands of the environment. And we haven't been particularly good at exploiting those or carrying foreign policy.

So I can go on - in the culture issue, obviously, there may be some differences among us - the three of us on this, but I think ultimately, you know, those are issues that you don't worry about winning or losing elections on. You stand up for what you believe is right and what you believe is true and what you believe is in the best interest and you try to persuade, and, you know, and let the chores(ph) fall where they may.

CONAN: Congressman Davis, does the party, do you think, need to be more inclusive of divergent views if it helps to attract more independents, young people, Latinos?

Congressman DAVIS: Well, not just divergent views. We've got to be a multi-ethnic party. We lost terribly among minority votes. Our largest drop off was among voters under 30 and Hispanics. These are two of the fastest-growing segments of the electorate, and we can no longer acquire an admission card to be nominated - an admissions test to be nominated by the party. We've got to have a more open process. I agree with Rick in terms of our economic message, our defense message, those kind of things. This is a thing that unites all Republicans. And I think the social issues are going to have to be, you know, more regional in their approach.

We're just, right now, non-competitive in vast segments of the electorate. And a lot of it goes back to the cultural issues. So this is Bush-fatigue. You have had a very unpopular president with low approval ratings over a sustained period of time, bad economy dropping in the middle of the campaign, an unpopular war. And to top it all of, Democrats had a four to one spending advantage. It wasn't with a fair fight. So you have to put this whole election in perspective. We'll be back and it's - we're going to have, I think, some arguments within the partisan discussions, within the party over which way we go. But now the burden shifts to Democrats to try to keep their coalition together in governance. And that's going to be tough.

CONAN: Michael Gerson, the old sports analogy is you're never as good as you look when you're winning, and you're never as bad as you look when you're losing. And then that's probably true in politics too. Nevertheless, there are some - there are some somber lessons. And there's some in the party who were in favor, who said, well, we got rid of some of those weak kneed Republicans who weren't really part of the party, and now we got down to the fighting core and we can rebuild.

Mr. GERSON: Right. I think parties that are happy when they lose are losers. There - that's a very bad sign.

Congressman DAVIS: I'd just add that you've got be a welcoming party. You've got to constantly innovate. You need to be looking always to win. You look at two groups. You look at friends and potential friends. For a long time, we've divided it into friends and enemies, right and wrong. And that is just now - it's a losing coalition force in them, we got to go forward and retool.

Mr. GERSON: I agree with that strongly. I think you look at the total difference, say, between Sarah Palin who I think has had some virtues as a candidate. I was not too deeply opposed to her as some others were. But she was very much talking about the real America. She was talking, you know, a populist resentment against cultural and media elites. That has an appeal in the Republican Party. But you compare it to Barack Obama's message, which was really of inclusion and getting beyond differences, at least rhetorically.

CONAN: Much more optimistic, much more hopeful.

Mr. GERSON: Right, exactly. And that was the message that sold in this election. That was a popular one. Some of the Republican rhetorics sounded more to me like the '80s and '90s. And I don't think that it was particularly effective in this environment.

Congressman DAVIS: Let me just say - it's Tom Davis again.

CONAN: Go ahead.

Congressman DAVIS: That one of the problems we've had - these have been referendums Republican rule in '06 and in '08. I don't think they were electing Democrats. They were unelecting us. And what Senator Obama does, he did - he talked optimistically. He was inclusive. But all he had to show the voters is that he wasn't us, and he was an acceptable alternative. Now comes the tough part. And that's governing, and that's trying to keep your inner-city coalitions together with you suburban coalition.

CONAN: Well, that's his problems, Congressman Davis. We're talking about your problems today.

Congressman DAVIS: It wouldn't be easy for him.

CONAN: Yeah. Let's see if we can get another caller on the line. Let's go to Tom, and Tom's with us from Ashland in New Hampshire.

TOM (Caller): Hi. I just like to say that I think some of your previous guests in - well, the previous person you had on are really missing the boat and it sounds like maybe the others that you have on now. The social issues, I think, are every bit as important as the financial issues. And I think if you look at what happened in California with Proposition 8, the voters showed up to turn down a proposition against homosexual marriage in a very liberal state. But they didn't show up to, you know, to support Republican politicians. And that is largely an issue that showed up in other states too.

And I think what you're looking at in the Republican Party is you've got 30 to 40 percent of the party - probably its largest - the largest part of its base are religious conservatives: Jewish, Christians, Mormons. And they basically feel like the party has totally trashed them. And then add to that the whole issue with immigration, you know, that you've got a party that's going globalist, opening our doors, make - driving up our taxes. And, you know, you mix all of that social part in with the financial and it's very easy to see why the base is very disaffected.

CONAN: Senator Santorum.

Mr. SANTORUM: Yeah. I would just say that if you look at the percentage of people that voted was the same percentage as in 2004. The difference is their side showed up and our side didn't. And I think the caller has a legitimate point here, that, you know, we - the talk that you - I'm trying remember what the columnist had said that - the David Brooks column - that traditionalists are going to win. One of the reason I think he points out - I don't think - David believes this - for one of the reasons I think he's right is because I think a lot of traditional Republicans look at the last few years and say, you know, we sort of got away from what our party is all about.

We haven't focused on, you know, shrinking the size of government, and creating more opportunity, and, you know, getting rid of programs instead of adding programs, and, you know, talking about the things that unite us. And I - as you heard me say in my introductory comments, I happen to believe that the social issues are very important issues of this country. I mean, to me, they're foundational. And that, you know, we as a party have stood for them. We've won elections holding those values. We've lost elections holding those values. But when we win elections, we tend to motivate the people who care about those values. And when we lose elections, we tend not to motivate those people. So I think there's a message in that.

TOM: Let me just say, I think, if you'd governed well, then you can hold your coalitions and it makes it easy. But we had an administration over the last four years that just didn't govern well from everything from Katrina to the conduct - the war, to the economy. And so whatever strength we may have had with the social coalition I think didn't matter as much. Let me also note in California...

Mr. SANTORUM: I'll agree with that, Tom.

TOM: A majority of whites voted against the marriage amendment, it was actually the blacks and Latinos that defeated it. It was a very, very close vote. As you know, I supported the marriage amendment. I am not considered myself as a hardcore social, conservative but a man of Americans supports those kinds of things still, but it is generational to a great extent. And we have got to have other messages besides just a social message and I agree with Rick in terms of getting back on to some of these tax and spending issues which we have gotten away from over the last four to six years.

Mr. GERSON: I agree that I think if the Republican Party were to in any public way, turn on or abandon its social conservative base it would be disastrous, be politically disastrous. But that's - but you have to have enough room for moderate Republicans in your party. And that means having, you know, pro-choice Republicans in the northeast and in the west and others.

Rep. DAVIS: And in my district. My district is a socially, I would say almost a liberal district and marriage meant a lot.

CONAN: Tom Davis in Northern Virginia.

Rep. DAVIS: In my district, I've supported stem cell research but I've opposed generally funding for abortion in the - I don't know where that comes down in the scheme of things but I am an economic conservative and I support free trade and I opposed this car check bill the Democrats are going to put in. There's no room for me in the Democratic Party.

TOM: Can I make one further comment?

Rep. DAVIS: The Republican party has got to make people like me feel welcome.

TOM: Absolutely.

CONAN: OK. Go ahead.

TOM: Can I make a further comment here?

CONAN: If you'd make it quick, yeah.

TOM: OK. My comment is simply that if you try to please everybody, you're going to please nobody.

Senator SANTORUM: Well, no, let me - I just said, look, as the sort of the social conservative and the group or at least the one that's been most up front, I would say that the Republican Party is going to stand for what it stands for. That doesn't mean that we have to poke those who agree with us on 80 percent of the other issues. In the (unintelligible) you are not welcome and I've never done that. I mean, you know, I agree to disagree with, you know, I served with Allan Specter. I mean, we were about as far apart on those issues as any two in the Congress but, you know, when we worked together, we went out of our way to make sure that we, try to accomplish things for the party that were we agreed and we just agreed to disagree but Allen knows that the Republican party is a pro-life party.

Now, he's going to work within that party to try to make - to try change some things and he has every right to do so but, you know, I don't think the party is going anywhere on those issues at the same time we have to be accommodated to those who may not feel that way.

CONAN: We're talking with former Senator Rick Santorum, who you just heard. Congressman Tom Davis who retires when this session of Congress is over from Northern Virginia and with Michael Gerson, the former deputy assistant to the president and director of presidential speech writing under George W. Bush and your listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. And let's go to Shane. Shane with us from Elizabethtown in Kentucky.

SHANE (Caller): Hi, yes, I guess many of the comments I wanted to make has actually been made in the (unintelligible) couple of minutes but I really feel like mostly political orphan. My grandparent's Republican, my mother is a Republican. I was Republican up until the last eight years or so. I really do feel like the party left me behind and my beliefs about again, fiscal conservatism, strong borders, safe borders, strong military, small government. I feel like this is all been kind of pushed aside in favor of moral issues and while agree with, you know, the moral issues are important. I do feel like they are personal choices and probably don't have a lot of place in the political sphere.

CONAN: If you don't mind Shane, let me up on one of the things you said, and that is strong borders and the issue of immigration. And so Tom Davis, can the Republican Party - should the Republican Party be the party that is most for limited immigration.

Rep. DAVIS: Limited immigration is a different issue from strong borders. I am a great believer in immigration. I think it is what's made our country great but you've got to have it regulated and what we need is high wall and a wide gate. And we got to make people go through the gate and I don't think you can count on people that don't obey the law. Now, the problem with us is some of our members have needed to take courses in anger management before they get in to talking about immigration. They do it with a mean (unintelligible) but we've got to defend the wall, the way it is, but you can be for liberal immigration and still be for a very high wall.

CONAN: Michael Gerson, as somewhat see that as a policy that's going to cost a lot of Latino votes down the road.

Mr. GERSON: Well, I think it did in this election. I think it is increasingly impossible to win national election in places like Nevada and Colorado and not just California but other states without significant Latino support. I mean, the political experts that I trust and know say that it's going to be a hard for any Republican president to win without at least 40 percent of the Latino vote which is what Bush got to significantly improving over his first election. And I, you know, I think the reality here is that any American party that's perceived as nativist is not going to be a national party because of their demographic trends in this country.

Republicans have to take that seriously, no matter what they think on other issues, it's just a strategic sort of reality here. I agree that the border is in some way separable, that you can be for a strong border. But the signals sent by House Republicans in particular to the Latino community in the last few years have been dismal. And no one, you know, even within the Latino community there is some diversity on views on immigration. But no one wants to be the target of a political discourse. And that's what many Latinos became for Republicans in the House of Representatives, and I think those signals were sent, they were very destructive.

CONAN: Senator Santorum.

Rep. DAVIS: Can I just add, it's not just Latinos. When we go hard off against illegal immigration, that reflects down to Asians, Middle Easterners, and others in our community. I have a very diverse district out here. And unfortunately, we go hard line against the illegal immigrants with the rhetoric and the way that's been expressed and at Prince William County the way its been carried out and ordinance. I think all ethnics even those that are here illegally and doing well financially feel threatened and it has really hurt the party brand.

CONAN: That was Tom Davis. Senator Santorum, I wanted to hear from you in these we just a minute left.

Senator SANTORUM: Well, I guess I generally agree with the tenure that, you know, this kind of hardcore rhetoric against immigrants. I am the son of an immigrant so I believe in immigration. I think immigration makes this country great. I also believe that we are a country of laws and that the folks - the vast majority of Americans were not anti-immigrant. They were not hostile to Hispanics. They just saw a law that was in place that was being flaunted and we saw people that wanted to, you know, want to escape the consequences of having broken the law and that strikes at a chord that really does, you know, get people's passion flowing.

So I - there is room here to find a middle ground, and I think if Republicans have do well to try to find that in the next few years and working with Democrats to put this issue behind us, so we can start talking about other issues in the Hispanic community and other minority communities that where I think we can start to get those votes back.

CONAN: Shane, thanks very much for the phone call. We appreciate it.

SHANE: Thank you, sir.

CONAN: And I'd like to thank our guest, the last one you just heard was Rick Santorum, former senator from the state of Pennsylvania, currently a senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, joined us by phone from his office in Northern Virginia. Congressman Tom Davis also with us on the phone from Northern Virginia. He represents Virginia's 11th congressional district, and here in the studio, Michael Gerson, the former speech writer for George W. Bush now at the council on foreign relations. Thanks to you all. This is Talk Of The Nation from NPR News.

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