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Young Republicans seek different message for 2016

Books by U.S. Senators Marco Rubio and Rand Paul share a table display at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Ha
Books by U.S. Senators Marco Rubio and Rand Paul share a table display at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Ha

By Sam Youngman

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Young Republicans still stung by Mitt Romney's defeat in November are looking for a White House candidate with a message they can run with. For some, that means going back to basics - and leaving divisive social issues behind.

Fed up with a Republican Party strongly associated with anti-abortion, anti-gay and anti-environment stances many younger voters do not share, some young Republican groups are shaping their own message.

Concord 51, a new political action committee, bills itself as "the voice of the young, fiscally conservative professional" with a focus on the "three core issues of fiscal responsibility, a strong national defense, and energy advancement."

Matthew Swift, chairman of the New York City-based PAC, believes an economic message will win young converts.

"I think it's about embracing the fights we're already in," Swift said. "We're not afraid to disappoint some people and frankly we're not afraid to tick some people off."

There's nothing left to lose - except the White House again.

In the last two presidential elections, Republican candidates lost the youth vote, and the race. As many as 23 million voters under age 30 turned out in 2012, analyses show, and Democratic President Barack Obama could not have been re-elected without them.

The so-called millennial voters, aged 18 to 29, represent an important segment that Republican leaders know they need to cultivate if they hope to ensure victory in 2016.

"The Republican establishment isn't going to win anymore if they keep writing off the youth vote," said Celia Bigelow, a 23-year-old conservative columnist from Detroit.

Looking toward 2016, young Republicans are excited about the possibility of a younger nominee like Marco Rubio, 41, the U.S. senator from Florida who loves hip-hop and recently quoted rappers Wiz Khalifa and Jay-Z on the Senate floor.

Many showed up Thursday for a meeting of the Conservative Political Action Committee in Maryland to scope out possible candidates like Rubio, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, 50, and U.S. Representative Paul Ryan, 43, of Wisconsin, the party's unsuccessful vice presidential candidate in 2012.

As young Republicans analyzed how to fix their party's problems, they often said national party leaders need to do more to win their vote.

"It's not quoting Jay-Z on the Senate floor that gets it done," said Swift.

In interviews, many pointed to the party's emphasis in recent years on divisive social issues such as abortion rights and gay marriage.

Miranda Onnen, vice chairwoman of the Ohio State University College Republicans, said her group avoided those topics.

"I know our club, and probably other collegiate clubs around the country are split on some social issues, so we choose as an organization to not pursue that message," she said.

While Rubio and other Republican officials have been forced by the party's influential evangelical wing to pick a side on issues like gay marriage, she and others believe focusing on such social issues alienates young voters.

An economic message might bring them back, they said, even though it might take a while to undo the damage of the last two presidential election cycles.

"We can unlock the majority of the party ... and not be dictated to by a small percentage," Swift said. "I just don't know how long it's going to take to occur."

2012 HINDSIGHT

Tim Miller, 31, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee, said the party made mistakes in 2012 and intends to repair its relationship with young voters.

For example, Miller said, it was a mistake to ridicule Obama as he sought new audiences by "Slow Jamming the News" with talk-show host Jimmy Fallon or joining forces with rap mogul Jay-Z.

"There still was an attitude on our side that the president should not be doing that stuff, and it should be mocked," he said. "We shouldn't be doing that."

In the last presidential campaign, Romney, 66, modestly tried to court young Republicans.

"You guys ought to be out working like crazy for me and people like me. Conservatives," Romney said in a speech last year at the University of Chicago.

The lukewarm effort helped the former Massachusetts governor make slim gains with the youth vote in November, pulling 37 percent compared to the 32 percent that voted for Republican candidate John McCain in 2008.

Still, it was no match for Obama. The 51-year-old Democratic incumbent crushed Romney with 60 percent of the youth vote, according to Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. The 18- to 29-year-old voters accounted for 19 percent of the total vote.

On social issues, 64 percent of those under-30 voters said abortion should be legal and 66 percent supported legally recognizing gay marriage, Pew said, citing exit poll data from the National Election Pool.

Young Republicans said if leaders like Rubio and Ryan keep the focus elsewhere, the party may have a better chance in 2016.

"There's a decent chance that the tables are going to be turned next time," Miller said.

(Editing by Doina Chiacu)

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