(Updates with comments from Bachmann starting in third, fourth paragraphs.)
June 17 (Bloomberg) -- The bad economic news buffering the U.S. is being welcomed in at least one quarter: among the Republican Party officials and activists gathered in New Orleans to gear up for next year’s elections.
Reflecting a renewed sense of hopefulness heading into the 2012 campaign, those attending the Republican Leadership Conference were optimistic that the recent wave of data showing a slowing recovery from the worst recession since the 1930s could add up to a victory for their party against President Barack Obama.
“The race really will be all about jobs and the economy,” U.S. Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, who’s running for the Republican presidential nomination, said in a speech today.
The country is in “the Obama trench of a double-dip recession,” Bachmann told the conference’s roughly 2,000 attendees.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia, the first of the major Republican presidential candidates to address the group, said yesterday that he was eager to spend his campaign talking about jobs, energy policy and the “Obama depression.”
Gingrich asked his audience: “How can the president of the United States say to the country he’s not concerned about a double-dip recession? How can he not be concerned when 14 million Americans are out of work?”
The three-day event, known as a showcase for aspiring nominees, comes as the Republican presidential field is solidifying and the contenders -- as well as potential late entrants -- are raising their profiles.
Bachmann, boosted by favorable reviews of her performance in a multi-candidate debate in New Hampshire on June 13, plans to formally kick off her presidential campaign in Waterloo, Iowa, before the end of the month.
Also speaking today were three other declared candidates: Representative Ron Paul of Texas, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum and Herman Cain, the former chief executive officer of Godfather’s Pizza Inc.
Paul began his speech by saying, “I have good news for the cause of liberty. The country is coming our way.”
He also quickly spotlighted the cause he is most closely identified with: abolishing the Federal Reserve.
Tomorrow’s speakers include Texas Governor Rick Perry, who in late May sparked interest within Republican circles when he said he’s “thinking about” a presidential bid.
Former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, who had served as Obama’s ambassador to China and will officially announce his presidential bid on June 21, canceled a scheduled appearance before the conference yesterday. He blamed a bad cold for his decision to skip the event.
Former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, both running for the nomination, are skipping the event, citing scheduling conflicts.
“The field is wide open,” Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour said in a speech today. Barbour, who after exploring a presidential bid decided against it, urged the party activists not to get “hung up on purity.” To win, he said, Republicans must rally around the eventual nominee.
“Our candidate won’t be perfect, but in this business, it’s unity that wins elections,” he said.
Gingrich, seeking to reboot his presidential campaign after a mass resignation of top campaign staff members last week, said in his speech that the 2012 presidential campaign was shaping up as a repeat of 1980, when Republican Ronald Reagan rode discontent with the nation’s direction to victory over Democratic incumbent Jimmy Carter. “We’ve been here before,” Gingrich said, as the audience cheered.
Republican strategists point to the weak economy as providing new momentum for their party’s hopes next year.
“There is increased frustration because of the slowness of the recovery,” said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster who’s working for Huntsman. “You can envision a very, very competitive presidential contest in 2012, unless things change dramatically.”
The unemployment rate rose to 9.1 percent in April, the highest level this year, according to Labor Department figures released June 3. The report was the latest indicator suggesting the nation’s recovery has hit a soft patch.
U.S. consumer spending slowed in the year’s first quarter, and confidence levels have since fallen. Manufacturing growth, a consistent contributor to the recovery, weakened across the globe in May. The S&P/Case-Shiller Index released May 31 showed U.S. home prices in March dropped to the lowest level since 2003, further eroding home equity available to Americans.
Republican candidates and top party officials have seized on the bad news.
“We all know the statistics. President Obama cannot possibly win re-election with this economy in the ditch,” said Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus at a Bloomberg Breakfast on June 8. “For our party, it provides us an enormous opportunity to defeat him.”
The public opinion boost Obama gained after the killing of Osama bin Laden in a U.S, raid in Pakistan last month has dissipated, as disapproval over his handling of the economy has grown. In a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll released yesterday, 49 percent said they approve of his performance, down from 52 percent last month. At the same time, 62 percent said the U.S. is on the wrong track, up 12 percentage points from a month ago.
Democrats argue that while the recovery has been slow, it’s only happening at all because of policies Obama put in place when he succeeded Republican George W. Bush in the White House.
“We own the economy,” Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who also is a House member from Florida, said at a June 15 breakfast sponsored by POLITICO. “We own the beginning of the turn-around and we want to make sure we continue that pace of recovery, not go back to the policies of the past under the Bush administration that put us in the ditch in the first place.”
That reasoning may not be enough to sway voters if the economy is still lagging. Unemployment is projected to be at 8.4 percent in the fall of 2012, according to the median forecast of economists surveyed by Bloomberg News in June.
--With assistance from Justin Blum in Tampa and Mike Dorning in Washington. Editors: Don Frederick, Paul Tighe
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