Republicans pledge to change tone, not positions

With an eye on the White House in 2016, Republicans spent this week in Hollywood mapping a path to a resurgence — determining how to streamline the primary process and close their deficit with Democrats among key voter blocs such as single women and Latinos.

But members of the Republican National Committee largely tiptoed around the greater challenge facing their party: The GOP's stance on issues such as marriage, reproductive rights and President Obama's healthcare plan are diametrically at odds with some of the very voters the party is trying to win over. And many members at the four-day gathering rejected any suggestion that Republican positions in 2012 alienated voters in those key groups — insisting that the party lost because of a weak presidential candidate and that all that is needed is a change in tone.

Though the party's recently released "autopsy" report prescribed changes to the primaries — sparking a lively debate this week about the party rules — it largely sidestepped questions about how far, if at all, the party will bend on issues. One answer came at the RNC's general session on Friday, as members approved by voice vote a resolution defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman. It urged the U.S. Supreme Court to uphold Proposition 8, which forbids gay marriage in California, and the federal Defense of Marriage Act; the court recently heard arguments on both measures and is expected to rule by June.

There was some recognition among delegates that a more serious discussion lay ahead. During a fight over party rules Wednesday, North Carolina Committeewoman Ada Fisher urged fellow members to note the lack of diversity in the room: "Look around you; there ain't but three of us that are black in the RNC."

"That's the issue," Fisher said, noting there also "aren't but so many Hispanics."

"I don't care how you change the rules — that ain't going to change because of the way we operate the party. We have to figure out some way to get input from other people," she said.

Interviews with members this week revealed broad disagreement about exactly what changes are needed to reverse the party's losing streak in national races. RNC Chairman Reince Priebus said his job was not to dictate policy but to create a granular, coast-to-coast operation — particularly in Latino and Asian American neighborhoods — to stem the party's steep losses.

Asked what the party planned to say to those voters, Priebus said the next Republican presidential candidate would drive the policy discussion.

"I'm not talking about changing the principle of our party, but I am trying to communicate that principle draped in grace and respect," Priebus said in an interview. "Generally we've done that. However, I know we've also had a few biologically stupid comments that were made in 2012 that helped, unfortunately, build a narrative and caricature that wasn't true."

For now, he said, the most important change was just "showing up" in minority communities. "It's not about what you say; it's how you say it," he said.

Discussions with party members throughout the week illustrated the outlines of a struggle between pragmatists who believe the party must make major changes and conservatives who do not.

Some of the RNC's 168 members — who represent some of the most conservative elements of the party and have control over rules and platform decisions — said they were offended by the call in the party's recent report for a more inclusive and tolerant tone on issues like illegal immigration and gay marriage. Several said they feared that the failure of the report to emphasize the party's opposition to abortion and same-sex unions suggested a move toward a softening of those positions.

Steve Scheffler, an RNC member and president of the Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition, questioned why the report suggested that Republicans be more open to hearing concerns from within the gay community and why it called for the party to "embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform."

"We ought to be welcoming of immigrants, but to me, that is a code word for amnesty. That just upsets the base," Scheffler said. "I'm all about inclusion [but] to alter our message is just not something I think we should do."

But one of the report's authors, Mississippi Committeeman Henry Barbour, said the report had been misconstrued. "What we've got to be about in the party is winning general elections, and you don't win general elections with litmus tests and purity," he said. "If we continue to come across as people who are shrill, and who don't like people who disagree with us, we're going to be a very small party."

RNC members this week said the party should place greater emphasis on areas of common ground such as education policy. School choice and laws that allow parents to assert control over failing public schools are popular among voters who generally side with Democrats.

Priebus noted that there was broad recognition within the party that in 2012, positions such as Romney's embrace of "self-deportation" for those in the country illegally demolished the campaign's chances among Latinos.

He also pointed out that if immigration legislation were to pass this year in Congress, the party would be able to point to the leadership of Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, a Cuban American who has played a central role in the bipartisan group of senators crafting the bill.

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