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Byron York: GOP should look to new governor of N.C. as it ponders fixes

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Politics,Byron York,Campaign 2012,Politics Digest

CHARLOTTE, N.C. - The Republican National Committee chose to hold its winter meeting here because North Carolina was one of the party's few bright spots in last year's presidential election. Although it was the high-profile site of the Democratic National Convention, North Carolina became one of just two states won by Barack Obama in 2008 that went for Mitt Romney in 2012. (The other was Indiana.) So being in North Carolina makes Republicans feel a little better.

But not much. The 168 members of the RNC are grappling with the consequences of losing the presidential race, losing the Senate and losing seats in the House. Everybody knows something is wrong with the party. To fix things, some are emphasizing outreach to Hispanics. Some are emphasizing modernized voter turnout efforts. Some are emphasizing the search for better candidates. No one is pushing just one solution; most see the answer as a mix of those and other ideas.

But they might start by asking themselves the most basic of questions: Other factors aside, did Republicans in 2012 address the concerns of the overwhelming majority of Americans who cite the economy and jobs as the nation's most pressing issue?

The answer, mostly, is no. But some Republicans did. At the RNC's opening night event, at the NASCAR Hall of Fame, members heard from one of those Republicans, new North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory.

McCrory first ran for the state's top office in 2008. He lost to Democrat Bev Perdue in what became a brutal lesson in the overwhelming power of the Obama wave. "In '08, I got killed by the Obama ground machine," McCrory recalls. "We didn't even know it was happening. The amount of money Obama put on the ground was something we've never seen before in North Carolina."

Defeated, McCrory reassessed and decided to run again in '12. But he knew he had to run a smarter race the second time around. He started earlier. He thought through his positions and the way he articulated them. He built relationships with more people across the state. He worked harder.

The new and improved McCrory stressed jobs, the economy and education. He highlighted -- and did not run from -- his 14 years of experience as mayor of Charlotte, even though that big-city resume was not a plus with many rural voters. He took advantage of Perdue's disastrously bad performance as governor. And on Election Day, McCrory defeated Democratic rival Walter Dalton by nearly 12 points.

In addition to winning a big majority of whites, exit polls show McCrory won 13 percent of blacks -- nothing to jump up and down about, but a pretty good showing for today's GOP. He also won a solid 46 percent of Hispanics. And among all groups, he won big among the majority of North Carolinians who cited jobs and the economy as the state's most pressing issue.

McCrory also refused to be drawn into the squabbles that doomed some Republicans around the country, like controversies over off-the-wall statements about rape. And on another hot-button issue, when a panelist in a gubernatorial debate cited a recently passed bill to limit abortions and asked McCrory, "If you're elected governor, what further restrictions on abortion would you agree to sign?" McCrory's answer was, in its entirety: "None."

His bluntness and brevity temporarily stunned the moderators and audience, not to mention his opponent. But it was a sign McCrory intended to stay on message, and the message was focused on the pervasive economic insecurity felt by so many North Carolinians.

Now he has to produce. North Carolina has a dismal 9.2 percent unemployment rate -- fifth-worst in the nation. "People are hurting right now," McCrory says. "I'm seeing it. You go to some small towns, they are shut down. They're just boarded up. It's tragic."

In his economic plan, McCrory is emphasizing energy exploration, including offshore drilling. He's pushing regulatory changes. And he wants to reform the state's antiquated tax code, to stress taxes on consumption more than income.

He's also enthusiastic about transportation infrastructure. "Not enough Republicans talk about Eisenhower," McCrory says, citing that Republican president's highway-building program. To McCrory, it's an example of infrastructure spending that's most valuable not for the jobs created during construction but for the private-sector economic growth it made possible.

Finally, as for the Hispanic outreach effort currently dominating discussions at the RNC, McCrory is all for it. But he reminds: "They want to hear about jobs and the economy, too."

In coming months, Republicans will talk a lot about how to appeal to a wider range of voters. They could learn from someone who's actually doing the job.

Byron York, The Examiner's chief political correspondent, can be contacted at byork@washingtonexaminer.com. His column appears on Tuesday and Friday, and his stories and blogposts appear on washingtonexaminer.com.

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