CHARLOTTE, North Carolina (Reuters) - Bruised and divided by November’s election losses, Republican leaders emerged from a series of self-analysis and strategy sessions this week with the outlines of a game plan to reverse voting trends that favor Democrats.
After a frank assessment of the party’s shortcomings, state and national officials at the Republican National Committee’s winter meetings vowed, above all, to improve the image of a party that they acknowledge is seen as unwelcoming - or even hostile - to single women and the nation’s growing minority population.
“You are going to see a very aggressive effort by this party to put on a different face,” said Sally Bradshaw, a Florida political strategist and one of five party leaders on a panel that will study how Republicans can refurbish their image.
There were closed-door strategy sessions on using technology to counter Democrats’ sophisticated methods of identifying potential supporters and getting them to vote.
Republican leaders also examined how to improve communications with grass-roots activists who are the backbone of national and local campaigns, and on how to cast the party’s conservative message in more appealing ways.
But the underlying message in the meetings was the challenge that Republicans face in broadening the appeal of a divided party with lingering image problems and declining support among single women, Hispanics and blacks.
Those voting groups helped to carry Democratic President Barack Obama to victory over Republican Mitt Romney in the November elections. Republicans also lost seats in both chambers of Congress, where Democrats control the Senate and Republicans lead the House.
Romney carried most of the white vote, which makes up about 72 percent of the U.S. electorate. But he was blown out by Obama in the scramble for minority and single-women voters in particular.
The election followed a bitter campaign that was marked by sometimes incendiary rhetoric from Republican candidates that turned off many voters, especially women and minorities.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s secretly recorded comment about the “47 percent” of voters who were government-dependent and would not back him, along with insensitive comments about rape by two Republicans running for the Senate, helped to foster the notion that the party was an out-of-touch bastion of older white males.
There also were comments by various Republican candidates - including Romney - that were viewed as particularly hard-line against illegal immigrants. Those remarks hurt Republicans among many Hispanic voters.
In Charlotte, Republican leaders said they recognize that they have some rebuilding to do.
“It’s not a particularly complicated formula: We got beat, so we have to change what we’re doing,” said Bradshaw, a close ally of former Florida governor Jeb Bush. “You can’t do the same thing over and over again and expect to be successful the next go-around.”
‘ANGER AS A HABIT’
For Republicans, the challenge will be significant.
Polls continue to indicate that the nation’s fast-growing minority communities favor Democrats over Republicans - and that nearly half of Americans have a negative view of the Republican Party.
For some Republicans, the formula to success among minorities boils down to a few principles: give the party a friendlier face, emphasize the virtue of conservative values, and have a platform on immigration that is seen as welcoming, not overly harsh.
Former House speaker Newt Gingrich, who led a strategy session called “Messaging Matters,” said the party could learn from what he called former president Ronald Reagan’s happy and optimistic outlook.
“We value anger as a habit,” Gingrich said of Republicans, adding such a tone has hurt the party in its policy and political struggles with the popular Obama.
“We will win that argument better if we’re in the Reagan tradition of happy warriors than if we are in the tradition of some of our candidates, who have been at best dour,” he told reporters.
State officials from across the nation said the party should not abandon its conservative proposals for reduced government spending and stronger economic growth, but needed to articulate them better.
“We have to look at everything, from the way we deliver the message to the way candidates are trained,” said Roger Villere, Louisiana state chairman.
But some policy adjustments could be required, including support for new immigration measures to appeal to Hispanics.
Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida is preparing an immigration plan in Congress, and Jeb Bush argued in a Wall Street Journal column on Friday for a broad approach that would help give illegal immigrants a path to U.S. citizenship.
That proposal will be opposed by some of the party’s conservative and Tea Party factions, which have been successful in challenging establishment Republicans in primaries only to see their more ideological candidates lose to Democrats in the general election.
But Republicans said there were still reasons for long-term optimism. Politics is cyclical, and Democrats have faced their own dark days after disappointing election losses in 1988 and 2004.
The party also still has a healthy outlook in many states, where there are 30 Republican governors. And there is a crop of young Republican lawmakers rising out of the statehouses - some with an eye on running for Congress as soon as 2014, or president as soon as 2016.
One of the Republican governors seen as a potential candidate for the White House, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, gave the meeting’s keynote address on Thursday night and offered a blistering critique of the party. He said it was too focused on Washington-based budget battles and too insular to reach out to new constituents.
Jindal offered a list of political changes that he said Republicans should make before the next election, including suggestions such as, “Stop looking backward,” and, “Compete for every single vote.”
“The time for gnashing our teeth is over. Now we have some work to do,” said Will Deschamps, state chairman in Montana. “We need a message that lets people know we care about them. We need to convince people that we are the party that can improve their way of life.”
Editing by David Lindsey and Eric Walsh