By Richard Cowan
BALTIMORE (Reuters) - Republicans in the House of Representatives, having seen their 2010 election victory dissolve into a near-suicidal tax fight, are promoting a repackaged jobs message they hope carries them to victory in the 2012 elections.
At a three-day retreat at a harborfront hotel in Baltimore, an hour's drive from Washington, House Speaker John Boehner mobilized prayer sessions, motivational speakers, spin doctors and even colorful New Jersey Governor Chris Christie to cheer up his 242-member House Republican conference.
House Republicans were ebullient when they gathered last year for their annual retreat after wresting control of the House from Democrats in elections a few months earlier. Twelve months later, the party faces a tough fight to hold those gains.
Polls show that Americans blame Republicans more than Democrats for the gridlock in Congress that has paralyzed decision-making on some of the toughest problems facing the country - job creation and dangerously high deficits.
By the time the retreat wrapped up on Saturday after gripe sessions, policy discussions and lectures on tactics and messaging, House Republicans may not have figured out how they will handle those problems, but Boehner proclaimed to reporters that in 2012, "our focus will be on the economy and jobs."
With a national jobless rate of 8.5 percent and millions of long-term unemployed people losing hope, Republicans and Democrats will both try to convince voters in the November presidential and congressional elections that they hold the keys to an improving economy.
President Barack Obama and fellow Democrats want to position themselves as protectors of the poor and middle class and a bulwark against Republicans who want to enrich the already rich.
Republicans counter that a free-spending president who racked up about $5 trillion in government debt wants nothing more than to overregulate job-creating companies and drive the country into the same economic ditch into which Europe is peering.
Emerging from the retreat, House Republicans plan to tout the 30 pieces of legislation they passed last year aimed at spurring job growth. While it is unclear how many jobs those bills would have actually created, Republicans will complain the measures were killed by an uncooperative Democratic majority in the Senate.
'PARTY OF SMALL BUSINESS'
The strategy is clear -- to rebut Obama's concerted efforts to paint Republicans as obstructionist for refusing to pass his own $447 billion jobs bill.
The 30 jobs bills will become a staple of the Republican election rhetoric, but that could open the party to the same accusations they level against Obama - that they are simply rehashing old ideas instead of proposing new ones.
"We must be the party of small business," House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, the No. 2 House Republican, urged fellow lawmakers at the retreat, which was held behind closed doors.
"If you say it once an hour, it's not enough, if you say it every 15 minutes, it's still not enough," Cantor said.
Both parties cast themselves as the champions of small businesses, which economists say are the engines of U.S. economic growth and job creation.
Cantor, who has courted the often rebellious 85 first-term or "freshmen" congressmen, many of them small-government Tea Party activists, acknowledged their disappointment with the slow pace of change in Washington.
Reflecting on his party's year in control of the House - which ended with the U.S. budget being about the same size as when Republicans took power - Cantor told the rank and file, "We learned this year that progress must be more incremental than some of us would have liked."
FOOTBALL AND POLLSTERS
To rally his troops, Boehner recruited former Washington Redskins football coach Joe Gibbs, a three-time Super Bowl winner now involved in NASCAR auto racing, to deliver a pep talk.
"He talked about football and NASCAR and about his life. His message was about the value of teamwork. That is what we are all about, teamwork," said first-term Representative Chuck Fleischmann.
Teamwork is something Boehner's fractious caucus has struggled with since Republicans won control of the House in 2010. Zealous freshmen aligned with the conservative Tea Party movement repeatedly frustrated the speaker's efforts to negotiate compromises with Democrats, raising questions from some about his effectiveness as a leader.
In Baltimore, some of the second-guessing about Boehner's decision-making continued, according to lawmakers who attended, but there was no overall discontent with his leadership.
So if the Republican message to voters this year is all about small business and job creation, the internal Republican message is party unity, something the party lacked in 2011.
"Every (Republican) leader ... talked about unity and working together, communicating to each other better. Unity, unity, unity," said Representative Lee Terry, a 14-year veteran.
The opposite of Republican unity was on display in the U.S. Capitol through much of last year, especially in November and December, as Obama and his Democrats pushed ahead with an extension of a tax cut for 160 million workers to help stimulate the economy.
It was a tax cut that Republicans were cool toward - partly because it was Obama's idea and partly because they had doubts about its effectiveness.
But as workers embraced having more money in their paychecks and economists warned against letting the year-old tax cut lapse, House Republicans fought with one another, first over whether to kill the tax cut and then over how to quell outrage from even the most conservative quarters that their delaying tactics would help re-elect Obama and give congressional Democrats a political boost in November.
Terry, a Nebraska lawyer who has been known to reach across the political aisle to get legislation moving, told reporters: "We've got to get on the same page here. We can't have what happened in December."
Former Republican Party Chairman Ed Gillespie delivered a simple message: "It's a tough year. You have to be ready."
Most political pundits think Democrats face an uphill battle
in November's elections to gain the 25 seats they need to return Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi to the House speaker's job. But Democrats are hoping to get within reach.
Pelosi, who grew up just blocks from where the Republican retreat was held and whose father was mayor of Baltimore, likely will likely do everything she can to poke holes in the new-found unity that Republicans say they forged in this blue-collar city.
(Additional reporting by Thomas Ferraro and David Lawder; Editing by Ross Colvin and Peter Cooney)