Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour speaks at the California Republican Convention.… (Steve Yeater, Associated…)
Reporting from Sacramento — — Potential presidential candidate and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour urged California Republican delegates Saturday night to keep a disciplined focus on economic issues in future contests and accused President Obama of saddling the nation with debt and sidestepping the rising cost of the nation's entitlement programs.
In a sometimes vague address threaded with familiar party mantras, folksy jokes and allusions to happier times for Republicans under his former boss Ronald Reagan, Barbour told delegates to the state GOP convention in Sacramento that they should not despair after their losses in November.
"President Reagan used to say that California was the wind tunnel of America -- anything that worked in California, people would try everywhere else," said Barbour, who was political director in the Reagan White House. "That works in the other direction too. ?We didn't win this year in California, but it isn't because we didn't have the right ideas. We just didn't drive them home well enough; we didn't cast the net wide enough.
"What works in the rest of America will work in California if y'all try hard enough," Barbour said.
Barbour did not elaborate about why Republicans failed to get their message across in 2010 despite record-breaking spending. In the race for governor, Republican Meg Whitman outspent Democrat Jerry Brown by a 5-1 ratio, excluding outside spending.
Barbour, who is expected to announce by the end of April whether he will run in 2012, said the party's next nominee must stay squarely focused on the economic issues that have dominated voters' concerns. A night earlier, another potential contender, former United Nations Ambassador John R. Bolton, argued that national security issues should be the party's focus.
Describing the 2010 elections as a template and a "massive repudiation" of the policies of Obama and the Democratic Congress, Barbour argued that "every policy of the Obama administration makes it harder for the economy to grow and harder to create jobs." He insisted that if Republicans stay focused on those policy issues, they can regain the White House: "When campaigns are about issues, it's good for Republicans," he said. "When campaigns are about anything else it helps the Democrats."
To that end, Barbour called for cutting the corporate tax rate, standing firm against tax increases proposed by Obama and scaling back federal spending. He scoffed that Obama and his supporters have "limitless faith in unlimited government," and said Republicans must be willing to tackle issues like paring back the cost of Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security. He offered no specific proposal.
"The next great realignment will be the realignment of entitlements -- to realign entitlements so that we protect the beneficiaries but without creating crushing debt that is going to be paid by our grandchildren's grandchildren," he said. "If we don't deal with it, then we're not telling the truth."
"America is ready for leadership that is plainspoken, common-sense, truth-telling," he continued. "They are sick of happy talk. We need to step up to the plate and solve problems."
Barbour has increasingly turned to policy critiques after being hit with criticism for controversial statements about the civil rights era. There have been other distractions as well -- his spokesman resigned several days ago after emails came to light in which he joked about the tsunami in Japan.
Though Bolton sharply criticized Obama's foreign policy approach during his speech at the California gathering Friday night, Barbour told reporters before his speech Saturday that it would be inappropriate to offer his views on the administration's approach to Libya at a time when U.S. troops are in harm's way.
"Whenever our men and women are involved in military action, every American stands with them, supports them, as I do. It's not a time to critique what the administration has done or will do, but we need to all be together and support our troops."
In a meeting with reporters, Barbour declined to take positions on a number of pressing issues in California including whether he favors a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, whether he would support increased oil drilling off the coast of California and his views on Gov. Brown's plan to close the state's multi-billion budget gap in part by extending state tax hikes.