ORLANDO -- If the Republican Party of Florida harbored any uncertainty about its Nov. 6 election performance, Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam offered this Saturday morning: "We got our teeth kicked in."
So as the Republican Party of Florida executive committee gathered at the Rosen Centre in Orlando for its first quarterly meeting since the general election, many GOP leaders sounded eager to soften harsh images to prepare for the 2014 state elections.
Most of Saturday's speakers focused on re-electing Gov. Rick Scott, Putnam and other Florida Republicans in 2014, not looking back. In the November election, Republicans lost ground in both the state Legislature and Congress, failed to offer much challenge to the re-election
of Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, and failed -- against all the party expectations -- to deliver Florida in the presidential race.
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Florida Republicans failed to win over independent voters, and did particularly badly with the fast-growing pool of independent Hispanic voters.
"It's not just that we lost, but that nobody saw it coming," Putnam said. "The fact that we were unsuccessful and oblivious is very disconcerting."
Still, Republicans retained solid majorities in both Florida houses and still have the governor's office and all state cabinet offices.
"You worked extremely hard," Scott said in his 30-minute speech to the 200 GOP leaders from all 67 Florida counties. "To the extent that we won elections, you won those elections. To the extent that we didn't win elections, you put us in the position to win the next elections."
RPOF Chairman Lenny Curry, Scott, Putnam and others offered several strategies:
n Keep the same leadership team. Curry and vice chairman Blaise Ingoglia were re-elected by acclamation.
n Differentiate Florida Republicans from national politics.
n Fight the "party of 'no'" label.
n Learn from Democrats, whose campaign networks, uses of data-driven marketing, social media and other technologies were believed to be more advanced.
"Being a Republican does not require an unyielding orthodoxy and not thinking," Curry said. "That's another thing certain members of the media like to stick on us."
Scott himself offered the softer message he has evolved toward since his 2010 election, drawing attention to Florida's improving economy and his emerging commitments to education and affordable college. He never mentioned his predecessor, Republican-turned-Democrat Charlie Crist, who is considering running against Scott in 2014, or Crist's record.
Even when questioned specifically about Crist by the media after his speech, Scott declined to say anything about the former governor.
Scott and Curry urged a similar economic message that Mitt Romney embraced during his failed presidential run, that Republicans stand for freedom of opportunity and business. Ingoglia even suggested the party's nickname -- Grand Old Party -- be recast as the Grand Opportunity Party.
"It is up to us in this room to not be tagged as the party of 'no,' but as the party of opportunity," Curry said.
Orange County Republican Chairman Lew Oliver, however, said that message is not enough. Voters heard the "opportunity" message in 2012, he said; they just weren't that interested.
"I think there is a clear understanding that things have to be done differently," Oliver said.
"There are going to have to be substantive changes in areas of actual policy, among them notably immigration, but also in areas of health care, taxes and alike," he added.
Not everyone was preaching a softer, gentler Republican Party. U.S. Rep. Steve Southerland of Panama City, first elected in 2010 with tea party backing, offered a defiant message full of Biblical references, hostility toward President Barack Obama's agenda, avowed opposition to any gun control proposals, and the observation that he himself is "part of a very thin line that stands between freedom and tyranny."
He predicted the 113th Congress, which was sworn in earlier this week, would be very combative.
"Me and my colleagues are ready," Southerland said.