By Thomas Ferraro and Richard Cowan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - House Republicans, struggling to articulate a unified message after a year of fights among themselves and with Democrats, hope to use their annual retreat to craft an agenda that resonates with voters in November's elections.
That will be House Speaker John Boehner's main mission when he and his fellow Republicans gather on Thursday in Baltimore for three days of brainstorming behind closed doors.
There is also certain to be chatter about the party's frontrunner to be the presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, who is widely derided as an uninspiring moderate by members of the conservative base. And the lawmakers will hear from a rising party star: Chris Christie, the audacious New Jersey governor who is seen as a future presidential or vice presidential contender.
The retreat comes as Republicans, entering their second year in control of the House of Representatives, are hounded by disappointed voters, including many aligned with the Tea Party movement, a three-year-old grassroots conservative movement dedicated to smaller government, fiscal responsibility and individual freedom.
Recent surveys give Congress record-low approval ratings, with Democrats narrowly outpolling Republicans.
Adding to their gloom, after a year dominated by partisan brawls over spending and taxes, many conservatives feel they have little to show in their historic bid for smaller government.
In fact, polls show voters blame Republicans more than Democrats for partisan gridlock that pushed the U.S. government to the brink of shutdowns and unprecedented default amid a stubbornly high U.S. jobless rate now at 8.5 percent.
"Voters are frustrated and angry," said Representative David Dreier, a senior House Republican. "Their feelings are driven by the hard economic times" and the inability of the Republican House and Democratic Senate to agree on legislation to create jobs.
Representative Tim Huelskamp, a Tea Party activist, figures Congress's nationwide approval ratings of about 11 percent are much lower in his Kansas district.
"They're probably closer to 1 percent," said Huelskamp, who hosted seven town hall meetings with constituents during the recent holiday break.
While some House Republican boast of unprecedented efforts to downsize the U.S. government, Huelskamp and others say 2011 was a failure.
The first-term lawmaker sees little in the way of lasting, meaningful deficit reduction. He also complains that Republican leadership abandoned a 2010 campaign vow of transparency in favor of back-room deals with Democrats.
PAYROLL TAX CUT
One day before departing for the retreat, House Republicans huddled on Wednesday in the Capitol basement to assess last year's missteps, especially the December payroll tax cut debacle. The idea was to get gripes about 2011 behind them so that the retreat can focus on 2012.
"We were picking the right fight," Boehner said of his handling of the payroll tax cut last month. "But I would argue we probably picked it at the wrong time."
Boehner, the top U.S. Republican, acquiesced in December to internal and external pressures and agreed to Obama's demand for a two-month tax cut extension just before it was to expire.
Many Republicans are skeptical of the economic benefit of the payroll tax cut, part of Obama's jobs creation efforts, but opposition to the publicly popular measure was seen as a political liability.
Boehner's performance has drawn fire from critics who question his toughness. But others say the speaker is doing the best he can given the Tea Party movement's influence and Democrats' control of the Senate and presidency.
"There is a recognition by all that John has a very difficult job - and that there isn't anyone out there who can do it better," said Dreier, a Boehner ally.
In coming weeks, Republicans are expected to vote to renew the payroll tax cut beyond its February 29 expiration so they can move to other matters. They also hope to reform an antiquated budget process and hone their message on the need to streamline a clunky U.S. tax code - two moves they see as essential for restoring the nation's economic health.
The annual retreat comes before November elections that political pundits think will see Democrats gain at least a few seats in the 435-member House, but not the 25 needed to take control.
Yet control of the House could ultimately turn on the presidential race with Obama or his Republican foe providing their parties a needed lift.
Ron Bonjean, a former senior Republican leadership aide in the House and Senate, said he expects his party to coalesce around Romney as nominee.
"Republicans have a choice. Support a Republican or give up ground to President Obama. Most Republicans will decide to support a Republican," Bonjean said.
In Baltimore, House Republicans will focus on ways to boost their popularity, several aides and members told Reuters.
After years of Democrats branding them as "the party of no," Republicans will try to turn the tables and accuse Obama of blocking progress.
"We hoped the Democrats controlling the Senate and White House were willing to work with us in the interest of country," wrote Representative Jim Jordan in a letter published Tuesday on a congressional website.
"Unfortunately, the president spent the past year trying to boost his own chances for re-election by avoiding real cooperation," added Jordan, the head of the Republican Study Committee representing core House conservatives.
Last week, Republican Senator Ron Johnson, a Tea Party activist, wrote a Wall Street Journal column outlining his prescription for success in 2012 - ideas that leading House conservatives will echo, according to a Jordan spokesman.
Johnson called on Republicans to highlight, through House votes, differences between their party and Obama's Democrats, on matters from health care to domestic energy production.
(Editing by Marilyn W. Thompson and Cynthia Osterman)