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GOP unveils virtual town hall

Republicans solicit ideas from the public

WASHINGTON – House Republicans may have the wind at their backs heading into the fall elections, but they know that polls show many voters still don’t like the GOP any more than they like the Democrats.

So to improve their image – and strengthen their bid to win control of the chamber – House Republicans on Tuesday opened a virtual town hall meeting to solicit input for a broad GOP governing strategy – an update on Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America” that shaped the Republicans’ message when they took over the House in 1994.

“The purpose of this project is to give the American people a megaphone to speak out,” said Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, the Republican minority leader.

But the party may be playing with fire. There are sharp divisions within the GOP, as well as between the party and many independent voters. The public attempt to develop a consensus may expose those fault lines.

Moreover, voters appear to be in a surly mood toward Washington, which is one reason why Republicans unveiled their new effort in a museum instead of using such iconic backdrops as the Capitol or other federal landmarks.

The party’s mission is further complicated by the power of the “tea party” movement that is pressuring the GOP to shift even further rightward toward positions that many rank-and-file GOP lawmakers do not want to see attached to their brand – witness the intramural controversies touched off among Republicans when Kentucky Senate nominee Rand Paul recently questioned the 1964 Civil Rights Act and called the White House’s criticism of BP “un-American.”

Democrats pounced on House Republicans’ use of office funds – rather than campaign accounts – on the effort, saying it should not be paid for on the taxpayers’ dime.

Republicans said the site cost about $20,000 to establish and is being monitored by a dozen congressional staff members. They say it is not a campaign tool, but whether the website would remain running after the election, is “for the next Congress to take up,” Boehner said.

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