G.O.P. Puts On a Calmer Face, Except for One Wild-Eyed Rocker

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WASHINGTON -- In the wake of their electoral drubbing in November, Republicans sought an image reboot at President Obama's State of the Union address, a new face that would be both more positive and less strident, youthful and multicultural but also quietly constructive and respectful.

Then there was Ted Nugent, the 64-year-old rocker who once told the president to "suck on my machine gun."

Mr. Nugent, the gun-rights brawler, sat stone-faced high up in the House spectators' gallery as the president pressed an agenda that went far beyond gun control. Invited to watch as the guest of another firebrand, Steve Stockman, a Republican representative from Texas, his crossed arms and stern visage seemed to capture the conflict still lurking within the Republican Party as its leaders look to expand their appeal.

There were no shouts of "you lie!" Tuesday night, no overt moments of disrespect beyond the usual partisan responses to policy. But in a House chamber filled conspicuously with the victims of gun violence and family members still grieving for lost loved ones, Mr. Nugent seemed like a provocation, a saber-toothed tiger invited to a garden party.

"I tend not to engage in inflammatory displays like that," said Representative Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania, a Republican moderate who invited a young constituent he had nominated for the United States Naval Academy.

Such dissonant notes reverberated throughout the marble halls of the Capitol all day Tuesday, from the office suite of the House speaker to the floor of the Senate to a rancorous roll call for Chuck Hagel at the usually decorous Senate Armed Services Committee. It reflected the very real struggle within the party between Republicans who believe tangible adjustments are needed, in policy and tone, and an equally confident core that maintains the party's problem is that it has not been conservative enough.

"He'll continue this demagoguery," Senator Ron Johnson, Republican of Wisconsin, said of the president after the speech. "He'll still waste everybody's time on gun control -- it's not going to pass -- and distract Americans from what we really need to do."

Senator Marco Rubio of Florida gave the official Republican response, taking the unprecedented step for the party of speaking in English and in Spanish to reach out to Latino voters who forsook the party in November.

"Despite our differences, I know that both Republicans and Democrats love America," he said, in an address that spoke passionately of his own immigrant background and economic rise. "I pray we can come together to solve our problems, because the choices before us could not be more important."

The lasting image of Mr. Rubio's address may not have been his youthful face and stately backdrop but an odd lurch off camera mid-speech for a quick drink of water. He recovered from the glitch, but it marred an otherwise smooth performance.

But before Mr. Rubio spoke from the well-appointed Capitol cloisters of House Speaker John A. Boehner, the speaker grabbed attention when he told reporters that he would like "a little foreplay first" from the president before embracing a path to citizenship for undocumented workers in an immigration bill.

Fellow Republican senators hailed Mr. Rubio, their new spokesman and a 2016 presidential hopeful, in terms that spoke to broader hopes for the party: youth, vitality, thoughtfulness and an affirmative agenda that was not just oppositional.

"Obviously, we know we've got to be for things," said Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona. Still, Mr. Rubio voted Tuesday against reauthorizing a more muscular Violence Against Women Act, an echo of his own roots on the right flank of his party. He was one of only 22 senators to oppose the bill, which 23 Republicans and 55 Democrats endorsed.

The Republicans sent out another mixed message earlier in the day when Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, the House Republican Conference chairwoman, launched the party's first official Spanish-language Twitter account, @GOPespanol. But last week, when House Republicans tried to begin a broader "G.O.P. en Español" program, which was to distribute Republican reactions to the State of the Union in Spanish, the most vociferous anti-illegal immigration voices in the House objected.

"There's a conflicting message that comes out from the Republicans if we want to recognize the unifying power of English, and meanwhile, we send out communications in multiple languages," Representative Steve King, Republican of Iowa, told National Journal. Official business and documents, he said, need to be in English.

The Tea Party's response to the State of the Union address fell to Senator Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky, no shrinking violet but a softer voice than last year's respondent, Herman Cain, or the inaugural choice in 2011, Representative Michele Bachmann, who looked away from the camera as she denounced the "16,500 I.R.S. agents in charge of policing President Obama's health care bill" and hailed "the early days of a history-making turn" in American governance.

Meanwhile, in the Senate Armed Services Committee -- a panel that for decades has been run with bipartisan decorum -- Senator Ted Cruz, a freshman Republican from Texas, all but called President Obama's nominee for defense secretary, Mr. Hagel, an extremist with ties to shady organizations.

"I will point out that right now this committee knows absolutely nothing about the personal compensation Chuck Hagel received in 2008 and 2009 or 2010," Mr. Cruz said. "We do not know, for example, if he received compensation for giving paid speeches at extreme or radical groups."

That yielded a stinging rebuke from the usually soft-spoken Senator Bill Nelson, Democrat of Florida, who said Mr. Cruz, a Tea Party favorite, had gone "over the line" and "impugned the patriotism of the nominee."

Republicans still held out hope that the lasting image of the night would not be such backbiting but a new tone of cooperation. "Good people will show that we're a governing party," said Senator Mike Johanns, a Nebraska Republican. "You win elections because people believe you can make a difference."

Ashley Parker and Jeremy Peters contributed reporting.

nation

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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