COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus cautioned GOP faithful on Friday that they won't recapture the White House if the party gets too obsessed with choosing its nominee while Democrats continue to outpace Republicans on campaign tactics.
"We have become a candidate-crazy party to the detriment of all the mechanics," Priebus told hundreds of GOP donors and activists at a South Carolina party dinner.
Describing the 2012 nomination fight as a "total disaster" and a "traveling circus," Priebus said the Republican National Committee has learned its lesson.
The party is spending millions of dollars this year to build a database that will help identify millions of likely Republican voters — an exercise unabashedly modeled after the success of President Barack Obama's two national victories.
"Now we're the ones buying the data licenses so that we know who to target and how to target," Priebus said. "Somebody has to get that done."
The national GOP also condensed the primary calendar and reduced the number of debates, with the party taking a stronger role in choosing the format and moderators.
Now, Priebus said, it's Republican voters' responsibility to avoid a "slice-and-dice festival" that he said left the 2012 Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, in a weak position as he tried to unseat Obama.
The chairman's warning comes less than nine months before the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary start the nominating calendar. South Carolina follows a few weeks later; the winner of the GOP primary here captured every Republican presidential nomination from 1980 to 2008. (Newt Gingrich won South Carolina in 2012.)
Home-state Sen. Lindsey Graham, who has been traveling in Iowa and New Hampshire, suggested Friday that he was close to launching a formal campaign as he shared the stage with Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, a declared candidate, and potential candidates Rick Santorum and Rick Perry.
"As to what happens in the coming months, get ready," Graham said. "Get ready for a debate that's been long overdue within the party."
He later added: "To Iowa and New Hampshire, hello. To South Carolina, you have my heart."
Graham would be considered a long-shot, but his aides and backers believe his foreign policy experience in the Senate, his outspoken advocacy for an aggressive U.S. international presence and his blistering critiques of Obama's international policy can propel him in a crowded field, amid widespread voter concern about security issues.
He hit those themes in his brief remarks. "To our enemies, get ready, because there's a new way of business coming," he said. "To our friends, get ready for the America you used to know."
The would-be 2016 rivals avoided any intra-party barbs at the GOP affair.
"I don't think there's anybody in this country that knows foreign policy better than Lindsey Graham," said Perry, the former Texas governor.
Graham praised Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator, as a champion opponent of abortion.
Cruz hailed the "incredible array of talent we have in 2016," then used the praise to mock the Democratic presidential field, which officially consists of Hillary Rodham Clinton and Bernie Sanders, a Vermont senator who has identified himself as socialist. The Democrats' primary, Cruz said, for now "consists of a wild-eyed socialist with dangerous views on foreign policy ... and Bernie Sanders."
South Carolina Republicans will reconvene Saturday, with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush joining the list of potential candidates taking the stage. The state's primary was a key victory for Bush's father, George H.W. Bush, in 1988 and his brother, George W. Bush, in 2000.
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