By BILL BARROW / Associated Press
NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- Midterm election campaigns are in full swing, but several thousand Republicans gathering in Louisiana look toward a bigger prize.
"We've got to figure out how to take back this country and win the White House again," Peggy Eichelmann of San Antonio, Texas, said Thursday as she and her husband, Norman, met with fellow delegates to the Republican Leadership Conference.
The Republican Leadership Conference has grown into an annual opportunity for rising GOP stars to address conservative activists who play key roles in the nominating process. Speakers this year include tea party favorites Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah. Delegates also will hear from 2012 presidential candidate Rick Santorum, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus will address the opening session Thursday evening.
The three-day event comes as Republicans aim for widespread success in the upcoming congressional midterms. The GOP is favored to retain its House majority and has a strong chance of winning a Senate majority to control all of Capitol Hill for the final two years of President Barack Obama's term.
But as delegates, many of them festooned in red, white and blue, filed in Thursday, they were brimming with energy -- and ideas -- for 2016. The question, of course, was how to win.
Priebus points to obvious voter demographics that show Republican nominees must attract more young and minority voters. But public opinion polls also suggest that the party's conservative positions -- and its candidates' emphasis -- on issues like immigration, abortion and same-sex marriage are liabilities with some of the very groups they want to win over.
Roy Luke, a retired Air Force master sergeant from Augusta, Ga., said the party's problem is "more about image than substance."
Luke argued that younger voters are eager to hear economic growth arguments from Republicans, while religiously conservative Latinos agree with the party's socially conservative stances. "These are all Republicans," he said, emphatically. "They just don't know it yet."
Luke said Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul is his choice for presidential nominee.
Norman Eichelmann insisted that the party can appeal to black voters "by offering them opportunity instead of welfare."
The Eichelmanns said they will support Perry should he run again for president after a short-lived campaign in 2012. In the meantime, she said, "we're all waiting on another Ronald Reagan."