CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Republican soul-searching begins in earnest this week as GOP officials from every state in the nation come together for the first time since their party's November shellacking.
There is broad agreement that the Republican Party needs to undergo fundamental changes to remain competitive as surging minority populations re-shape the American electorate. But there is no clear path forward. And even as they gather in a Charlotte, N.C., hotel this week — just days after President Barack Obama began his second term — Republicans are in some ways as divided as ever.
Facing his first re-election test later in the week, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Preibus is under intense pressure to improve the Republican brand to attract more women and Hispanics, while not upsetting the hard-line conservatives who represent his party's most passionate voters.
"They're really going to have to do full throttle self-examination. They have alienated so many people who are Republicans," said Olympia Snowe, a three-term Republican senator who retired last year, in part because of her party's shift to the right. "It's going to be a mighty challenge. The party's gone astray."
Indeed, the formal theme of the Republican National Committee's winter meeting — "Renew, Grow, Win" — reflects an understanding from party officials that the GOP must grow to survive. In particular, this week's meeting will focus on the need to abandon harsh rhetoric on illegal immigration, women's issues and the social safety net, rhetoric that helped drive moderate voters and minorities toward Democrats last fall.
"We need to renew our values, renew our party, renew what we stand for," RNC spokesman Sean Spicer said.
The push to broaden the party's message is the focus, but not the only business on the agenda for the three-day meeting in North Carolina, a presidential swing state where Democrats hosted their national convention last summer.
Republicans from across the nation will decide Friday whether Priebus deserves a second term after his party lost an opportunity to win the White House and add Senate seats under what appeared to be favorable political conditions. The 40-year-old Wisconsin native is widely expected to win re-election, despite a challenge from Maine National Committeeman Mark Willis, a former Ron Paul supporter who led a brief revolt at the party's national convention last year in Tampa, Fla.
Willis said Wednesday that he did not have the backing of three states needed to ensure a spot on the ballot with Priebus. He acknowledged that he would not likely defeat the sitting chairman even if he qualifies for the ballot. But he and others lashed out at party leaders, saying they were marginalizing grassroots supporters who favored presidential candidates like Paul, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann or Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who is thought to have interest in a 2016 presidential bid.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a conservative favorite, is attending the meeting in an unofficial capacity. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who has been mentioned as a possible 2016 presidential candidate, will deliver a keynote address Thursday night.
Ongoing discussions are expected to swirl about the 2016 presidential voting calendar, which sets the first contests for Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada. While no shifts are expected this week, some party officials have grown increasingly concerned about Iowa's role after its last presidential caucus.
The results were confusing at best. Mitt Romney, who eventually won the nomination, was initially declared the caucus winner by the Iowa GOP. A subsequent tally, however, suggested that Santorum actually won by a handful of votes.
Some Republicans complain that Iowa's socially conservative voters tend to support candidates that represent ideological extremes. Santorum's candidacy was driven in large part by his opposition to abortion rights and gay marriage. Four years earlier, Iowa Republicans favored Mike Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor and ordained Baptist minister who went on to win just a handful of states.
"I think Iowa is where all eyes are focused," said veteran GOP operative Phil Musser.
But Republicans far from Iowa also hurt their cause in the last election cycle.
Romney helped alienate many Hispanic voters by highlighting his support for a fence along the Mexican border and "self-deportation" of illegal immigrants. Down-ticket Republican candidates alienated female voters by backing new abortion laws in a handful of swing states like Virginia and New Hampshire, while Senate candidate Todd Akin of Missouri hurt himself and his party by declaring that women's bodies could prevent pregnancy in cases of "legitimate rape."
Exit polls make clear that Republicans face an uphill battle if they hope to repair their image.
Obama dramatically outperformed Romney among Hispanics last fall, winning 71 percent of the growing demographic compared to Romney's 27 percent. That was the GOP's worst showing among Hispanics since 1996, according to exit polling collected by The Associated Press. It was worse among black voters, who supported Obama over Romney 93 percent to 6 percent.
The disparity is less acute among women — Obama captured 53 percent of the female vote — although two decades have passed since a Republican presidential candidate last hit the 50-percent mark with women.
This week marks the beginning of a substantive discussion, but Priebus has outlined plans to release a "Growth and Opportunity Effort" later in the spring that offers specific paths forward.
It's unlikely to satisfy everyone.
"There's too many people that are either in the Republican Party wondering why they are in the Republican Party because they feel like the party isn't representing them any longer," said Nevada Republican national committeewoman Diana Orrock, a former Paul supporter who worries that grassroots supporters are being taken for granted. "Or we have people who have left the Republican Party and aren't getting a clear message as to why they should come back into the fold."
"We're losing elections," she said. "Something has to change."
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