LAS VEGAS — Top Republicans meeting for the first time since Election Day say the party lost its bid to unseat President Barack Obama because nominee Mitt Romney did not respond to criticism strongly enough or outline a specific agenda with a broad appeal.
In conversations at the Republican Governors Association confab in Las Vegas, a half dozen party leaders predicted the GOP will lose again if it keeps running the same playbook based on platitudes in place of detailed policies. Instead, they asserted, the party needs to learn the lessons from its loss, respect voters' savvy and put forward an agenda that appeals beyond the while, male voters who are its base.
"We need to acknowledge the fact that we got beat," Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said in an interview. "We clearly got beat and we need to recognize that."
Little more than a week after Romney came up short in his presidential bid, the party elders were looking at his errors and peering ahead to 2016's race. Some of the contenders eying a White House run of their own were on hand and quietly considering their chances. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie scheduled a private meeting on the sidelines with Haley Barbour, the former Mississippi governor who is widely seen as one of the GOP's sharpest political operatives.
"We need to have a brutal, brutally honest assessment of everything we did," Barbour said. "We need to take everything apart ... and determine what we did that worked and what we did that didn't work."
Other potential White House contenders such as Jindal, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker were outlining a vision for the party in coming elections.
"We need to figure out what we did right and what we did wrong, how we can improve our tone, our message, our technology, our turnout — all the things that are required to win elections," McDonnell said. "We are disappointed, but we are not discouraged."
With polls in hand and shifting demographic trends in mind, these Republicans are looking at how best to position the party to make inroads with growing numbers of Hispanic, black and young voters who overwhelmingly voted Democratic last week. The Republicans were still smarting over constant criticism of Romney from Obama and Vice President Joe Biden — and what they saw as Romney's often ineffective response.
"They spent all their time making Mitt Romney unacceptable and making him out to be someone who was untrustworthy and unacceptable to enough of the American people — and it worked," Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad said in an interview.
In the hallways at the conference, the governors and their top advisers uniformly blamed Romney's loss on an uneven communications strategy. They said Romney allowed himself to be branded a corporate raider who put the interests of the wealthy above those of middle-income voters.
"We didn't have effective means by which to counter the attacks the Obama-Biden campaign took against Mitt Romney and his team," Walker said. "I just don't think you can let that go unanswered."
Time and again, the governors pointed to Obama attacks that settled into voters' minds.
"His whole campaign was a fear-and-smear attack to make Romney unacceptable and to blame George Bush for anything that happened while Obama was president," Barbour said. "This was all personal: that Romney is a vulture capitalist who doesn't care about people like you, ships jobs overseas, is a quintessential plutocrat and is married to a known equestrian."
Barbour added, "An attack unanswered is an attack admitted to."
Had the criticism been shown to be false or unfair, the results might have been better, said Bill Bennett, an education secretary in the Reagan administration and an informal adviser to governors.
"We were in a big fight. We came with a knife; they came with a gun," Bennett said. "If Mitt Romney had responded and had we responded on his behalf — and had his campaign pushed back more forcefully — I think it would have been a different result."
Jindal, however, attributed Romney's loss to a lack of "a specific vision that connected with the American people."
"His campaign was largely about his biography and his experience," Jindal said. "But time and time again, biography and experience is not enough to win an election. You have to have a vision, you have to connect your policies to the aspirations of the American people. I don't think the campaign did that and as a result, this became a contest between personalities and — you know what? — Chicago won that."
Romney cast his loss in a different light, at least in a phone call with top donors Wednesday. He asserted that Obama won re-election because of the "gifts" the president had already provided to blacks, Hispanics and young voters and because of the president's effort to paint Romney as anti-immigrant.
"The president's campaign, if you will, focused on giving targeted groups a big gift," Romney said, citing immigration proposals aimed at Hispanics and free contraception coverage that appealed to young women. "He made a big effort on small things."
White House press secretary Jay Carney disputed Romney's assessment, telling reporters traveling with Obama aboard Air Force One that policies allowing more young people to go to college or stay on their parents' health plans are good for all Americans and the economy as a whole.
"I think that view of the American people or the electorate and the election is at odds with the truth of what happened last week," Carney said.
Romney said his campaign, in contrast, had been about "big issues for the whole country." He said he faced problems as a candidate because he was "getting beat up" by the Obama campaign and said the debates allowed him to come back.
The Republican nominee didn't acknowledge any major missteps and said his team had run a superb campaign.