ARLINGTON, Va., May 2, 2009 -- Some Republican leaders today launched what they are calling a "conversation with America."
It was the first of several events planned as part of a new movement they're calling The National Council for a New America. The event drew some of the biggest names in the GOP, including former presidential candidate Mitt Romney and former Florida governor Jeb Bush.
But it felt less like a town hall meeting and more like a therapy session for conservatives in crisis.
Audience members packed into a small pizza joint in Arlington to listen and to be heard.
Brian Summers, a Republican voter, expressed some universal frustrations with the party.
"We gotta give Americans something to say yes to," he said. "We should stand strong and stay faithful to what we firmly believe and go forward but have a message that includes all Americans."
To which Romney replied: "Well, all I can say is, Amen."
But recently, the GOP has been saying a lot of "no," which hasn't been good for the party's image.
There was unified opposition to President Obama's stimulus plan. And when conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh said earlier this year that he wanted "Obama to fail," those remarks were met with raucous applause at a conservative conference.
Now a group of Republicans are trying to re-frame and re-focus the party. Bush said it was time for the party to show some "humility."
"It's time for us to listen first, to learn a little bit, to upgrade our message a little bit and not to to not be nostalgic about the past," the former Florida governor said.
That means moving hot-button social issues like abortion and gay marriage to the side and shifting the focus to health care, education and the economy.
Gerardo Interiano is 20-something Republican voter who says the party has steered off course.
"I think people have lost the trust of the party and I think we need to do everything we can to bring them back and go back to our principles of fiscal responsibility and go back to our roots," Interiano said.
But it's a complex task -- going back to roots of fiscal conservatism, without marginalzing a social conservative base -- all the while reaching out to moderates and independents who have left the party in droves.
According to a recent ABC poll, only 21 percent of Americans self-identify as Republicans. That's the lowest number since 1983. And only 39 percent of Republicans themselves say they have faith in congressional Republicans to "make the right decisions for the country's future."
That data, along with Obama's increasingly popular poll numbers, put the GOP on the ropes and makes attracting moderates and independents more difficult. That effort got even more complicated this week when the party lost longtime moderate Republican Sen. Arlen Specter to the Democrats.
"As the Republican Party has moved farther and farther to the right, I have found myself increasingly at odds with the Republican philosophy and more in line with the philosophy the Democratic Party," the Pennsylvania senator said.
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said the party has become a hostile place for moderates.
"There seems to be this effort within the right wing of the Republican party to purify the party somehow by driving out those that are more moderate or who have views that are different from the far rights, and I think that's a recipe for disaster," she said.
Political analysts say if the GOP is going to find its way out of political exile, it has to capture voters all along the political spectrum.
"That conservative core is absolutely necessary for Republican success, but it's not enough. It's not sufficient," said Ramesh Ponnuru, senior editor of the National Review. "And Republicans have to find a way to reach beyond it -- while keeping it."
It's a delicate and difficult mission and those gathered at the town hall event today admitted there's a long journey ahead. The only way forward, they say, is to listen and learn, so that once again they can lead.