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GOP Must "Accessorize" Says Strategist

Political Players is a weekly conversation with the leaders, consultants, and activists who shape American politics. This week, as the Democratic contest winds down, CBS News' Brian Goldsmith talked with Republican National Committee Deputy Chairman Frank Donatelli about his party's prospects for November's elections. Let's start with Democrat Travis Childers--elected to Congress this week in a district that President Bush carried by 25 points. Why are the pundits wrong in predicting that this is the beginning of a negative trend for Republicans?

Frank Donatelli: Well, because special elections are not necessarily a good barometer of general election results in a given cycle. And, I mean, what I think these elections tell us is that it's a real wake up call for members of our party that they're going to have to build their own coalitions.

They're going to have to reach out to voters beyond just the Republican base. And just having an R after your name is not going to save you this time.

So, you know, if you draw the right lessons from something in life it can actually be a positive. I know it's going to be a tough environment. And Republicans are going to have to work very, very hard in order to win their races. What lessons, specifically, should Republican candidates across the board learn from Greg Davis' performance? He was, of course, the Republican nominee in that district. What did he do wrong?

Frank Donatelli: I don't know that he really did anything wrong. I know that there was a split in the district. There was a very vigorous Republican primary. And the party didn't come together as well as we would like. Greg Davis did not have the opportunity to do a full six to eight month campaign. So he was sort of stuck with his circumstances. Now, you know, he is running again in November. And so the hope is he'll be able to reverse the results of [this week].

But I just think it goes to show that Republican candidates need to use the entire electoral season. And we've got about six months left now. To talk to their people. To build coalitions. To reach out beyond the Republican base. And to have their own narrative as to their accomplishments and why people should elect them. What do you think is wrong, if anything, with the Republican brand?

Frank Donatelli: Well, it's tough economic times. We're still at war in Afghanistan and Iraq. And the economy is very, very soft. And so gas prices are high. People are very, very anxious. And the Republicans are the party in control of the White House. And so, by the rules of the game, we get most of the blame right now. Again, I think that that situation need not last six months. I mean, the hope is that the economy will start to strengthen again, that we're going to continue to show progress in Iraq.

But, most importantly, there are candidates in our party who will be able to present a positive vision and a positive program for America. And will be able to contrast that with our opponent's record, which almost always involves more federal bureaucracy and higher taxes. Getting back to the environment, the highest wrong track number ever recorded in opinion polls, the highest disapproval rating ever recorded for a sitting president. How big is the magnitude of the problem?

Frank Donatelli: Well, the political environment represents the starting point is what I would say. And it's fair to say that, in 2008, we start off, just on a generic basis, behind by five or ten points. And so that means we have to run five or ten points better than the other guys.

That's difficult but it's not impossible, by any means. And I like our odds because we have a candidate that's lapped the field a couple of times already. And he is very comfortable running a non- traditional campaign where he puts really interesting coalitions together and wins votes that aren't Republican votes.

So would it be better if this was 1984, and it was morning in
America, and everybody was in fine feathers? Of course it would.
But the current circumstances are challenging. But given Senator McCain and our strong campaign team, I have every expectation that we can win this race. Tom Cole, the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, went beyond what you've said. He thinks it's more than the problem in the environment. He asked aloud whether something was wrong with the product after three special election losses in Republican seats. Do you think there's something wrong with the product as well as the environment?

Frank Donatelli: Well, I guess what I would say is that the successful Republicans this time are going to maybe take the basic brand and add their own mix to it. So I guess I would say yes. I mean, I don't think the generic brand will do it this time.

Sometimes the generic brand does it for Republicans or Democrats, based on the circumstances. But this time it's a very challenging environment and it's not enough just to kind of go down the litany of issues. I think you've got to be more creative. You've got to reach out. You've got to have some really strong issues, talking points of your own.

So, you know, it's kind of like we're a basic black dress. Sometimes it works. But sometimes you've gotta, you know, you've gotta have the accessories to go with it. And we need accessories this time. This is the year to accessorize for Republicans.

Frank Donatelli: First time I've ever talked about shoes in an interview like this. Tom Cole also said "there's a deficiency in our message." So if you agree with that, if there's a deficiency in the message, what do you think the new message can be or should be to attract a lot of these voters who voted Republican in 2000 and 2002 and 2004 but are defecting this time?

Frank Donatelli: Well, I think we have to be true to our own principles. And I think we have to talk maybe more in specifics and not generalities. Try to connect how our policies will make things better for the average American. You know, why we need additional sources of energy. And why we need more energy supply which, in turn, will bring down the price of gas. I think we need to give more vivid examples of things like that.

I like the basics that our party stands for. But a lot of times we have to retool the message based on what the current circumstances are. And, you know, the crisis we face. And so, if we're going to get serious and say that we really need to restrain federal spending, we really need to do it.

If we're going to get serious about fighting the war on terror then we have to convince people that we're serious about it. So I guess just being a little more vivid in our examples. And try to connect our policies up a little more with what Americans are thinking. In the last two of these special elections, in Louisiana and in Mississippi, there was a concerted effort to link the Democratic candidate to Barack Obama. Do you think that the results show that that wasn't successful? Or do you think that the Democrats won in spite of the linkage that you drew to the national Democratic candidate?

Frank Donatelli: Well, those two statements aren't inconsistent. It clearly was not enough. And it clearly, by itself, is not a successful message. Now that being said, I don't know that the two candidates that won on the Democratic side were eager to embrace Senator Obama either. But it doesn't seem like Senator Obama is the drag on the Democratic ticket that I assume you all hoped he would be.

Frank Donatelli: Well, but we don't know. I mean, see, I don't know that he's an asset either. We just have to have more information than two special elections, which I'd said earlier are not necessarily harbingers.

But, look, if you're asking me are we going to win large numbers of seats by just connecting the local Democrat to Senator Obama? The answer is no. We have to do more than that. Were you satisfied with the performance of the NRCC overall?

Frank Donatelli: I thought they did well. And I can tell you that the RNC did a lot too. There was certainly an all-out effort, there was a lot of money put into the district. I don't have a complaint, I really don't. I think that we need to work hard in the next six months to try to change the environment a little bit. Do you oppose the efforts of all these 527 groups? Does the Republican National Committee take a position that you oppose people starting up and donating to these groups?

Frank Donatelli: Well, they're independent groups, so whether we oppose it or not, I mean, they're gonna do what they want to do. I will say that Senator McCain has said that he would prefer that supporters of ours would donate to his campaign and to Republican National Committee, if only because the money would be used most wisely and try to reinforce the message that the Senator and the campaign are trying to convey.

527s can hurt you sometimes as much as they help you. And they're just a wild card. Just something else you have to worry about. So our strong preference, as I say to everyone, would be if you want to help Senator McCain you should donate to the party and to his campaign directly. Senator Obama, this week, attacked what he called the lobbyists running the McCain campaign. What's your response to that?

Frank Donatelli: My response is that there are no active lobbyists in the McCain campaign, as far as I'm aware. The individuals that he's talking about are not lobbyists. They've taken a leave of absence, are no longer affiliated with lobbying firms.

I mean, I can tell you that I have a leave of absence from my firm.
And I am not receiving any salary or any compensation at all from my firm. So there is no conflict of interest here. All of our efforts are dedicated to electing Senator McCain. And finally, let me just give you a chance to be positive about your candidate. Even Republicans say this is a change election. What do you think will be the biggest changes voters can expect from a John McCain presidency after a George W. Bush presidency?

Frank Donatelli: John McCain is his own man. He has his own style. He has his own way of doing things. He will have his own appointees that will be different in all respects. In terms of policy, he's much tougher, I think, on domestic spending. And would make a much more aggressive effort to rein in federal spending and keep our budget balanced.

He's, I think, a little more aggressive in terms of the environment, favors legislation to rein in greenhouse gases. I think, fighting the war on terror, he favors the current course in Iraq.

Though he lobbied hard for the administration to change a couple of years ago when he thought they were on a different strategy. He has a whole new approach when it comes to marrying community colleges and unemployment insurance and retraining of workers. He has a slightly different approach on health care. He has his own health care plan.

So, you know, he really appreciates what the president has done for our country. And especially in keeping the country safe for six years after so many people felt that we were going to be attacked again after 9/11. I think the president deserves enormous credit for making certain that that didn't happen.

But, nevertheless, Senator McCain is his own man with his own policies. And would bring a distinctly different style, I think, to the Oval Office. It's really not a question of change versus no change. But rather a question about change that works and change that doesn't work.

By Brian Goldsmith