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Thomas Fitzgerald: 'Happy warriors'

Pa. GOP, anxious yet optimistic, gets a Lincoln Day dinner pep talk.

HARRISBURG - Gov. Bob McDonnell (R., Va.) was a blunt therapist Friday night, telling assembled Pennsylvania Republicans to quit whining.

"The pity party should be over," McDonnell said to a crowd of about 300 at the Harrisburg Hilton. "It's been two months."

Since losing a presidential race they were convinced they would win, Republicans nationally have been going through an extended mourning-cum-autopsy process, trying to figure out what went wrong on a clinical track, while many indulge their frustration that President Obama was so easily reelected.

"We could've won, we should've won, but we didn't," McDonnell, who was born in Philadelphia, said at the annual Lincoln Day dinner of the state GOP. "How could we improve the brand, and how could we welcome more people to our team? How could we widen the net to get new Americans and younger voters and casual voters and ethnic voters to come to our cause?"

It's time for Republicans to stop coming across as sour-faced free-market scolds, he said. Conservative principles are not the problem, he said; history has shown small government and free markets to be the world's best engines for human freedom. The problem? Tone. It's time for Republicans to be "happy warriors," he said.

In conversations at the state committee winter meeting Friday and Saturday, the mood of GOP activists seemed a little anxious and yet optimistic that voters would come around to their philosophy, eventually. The Pennsylvania party faces two challenges: getting ready for 2014, when it will try to reelect Gov. Corbett despite his disaster-scale approval numbers, and laying the groundwork for 2016 in hopes of helping a Republican presidential candidate carry the state for the first time since 1988.

When Corbett sat down at the head table Friday night, the swing band having finished its rendition of Elvis' "Love Me Tender," he was greeted by a smattering of applause, a little louder than polite golf clapping, but not rousing; about 25 people near the front of the room stood.

Last week, a Franklin and Marshall poll found his approval rating at 26 percent, lowest in the poll's 20-year history; a Quinnipiac Poll put it at 36 percent.

"You guys worry about the polls, I'll worry about doing my job," Corbett told reporters. "I have known from Day One that the first few years were going to be difficult for me." He said that the state's fiscal situation was far better than when he took over and that "I really believe Pennsylvania is poised to take off."

As Republicans chewed on their situation, a reminder of Corbett's vulnerability was the buzz that U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz (D., Pa.) might take him on. Her chief aide, Rachel Magnuson, said Schwartz was "seriously interested." As for the state's oft-cited trend of reelecting governors, Democrats say no other incumbents' polls were as low as Corbett's, nor did any draw what one strategist called an "A-list" challenger like the well-funded Schwartz.

"Good, the more the merrier," Corbett said of the Schwartz news. He said he hadn't had time to study "hypotheticals" such as a GOP-backed push to undo the state's winner-take-all awarding of its electoral votes. McDonnell has rejected a move to divvy up electoral votes based on popular vote in congressional districts, saying it would render Virginia "irrelevant" as a swing-state prize.

Republican activist Randy DeSoto, from the Harrisburg area, said the party needed to recognize that it lost to a foe who controlled the narrative and convinced people that the government could help them via programs such as Obamacare. The pendulum will swing again, he said.

"Maybe people just have to learn the consequences of their actions," DeSoto said. Problems are cropping up for the health program, he said, with employers' dropping coverage for workers. "By the 1970s, all these programs created in the 1960s with the best of intentions had created a stagnation in our country, and that helped lead to Ronald Reagan."

Freshman U.S. Rep. Scott Perry of suburban Pittsburgh said, "We took a hit in the chin, but we're going to pick ourselves back up." He, too, said the best bet was to critique Obama policies in human terms: "We've got to stop talking about GDP and start talking family finances. . . . People want to know we're like them."

State party chairman Rob Gleason, reelected Saturday, termed electoral-college change "dead," particularly the congressional-district model, saying, "We can win the presidency. . . . We don't need the fix the law to make that happen."

Gleason learned from Obama's field operation that campaigning was "24/7, 365 days," and has been beefing up state GOP staff to 30, including an aide from Florida to try to recruit Hispanics.

As for 2014: "Tom Corbett is who he is - he's not flashy. . . . We've got two years to go, and a lot of the good things he has been doing haven't kicked in yet," Gleason said. "People don't know what he's done."

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