CHARLOTTE, North Carolina (AP) — Soul-searching begins in earnest this week at the Republican Party's first national gathering since its shellacking in the November elections, which starkly displayed the growing advantage of President Barack Obama and his fellow Democrats among women and minorities.
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, North Carolina, hotel this week — just days after Obama began his second term — Republicans are in some ways as divided as ever.
"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 that the party 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.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney helped alienate many Hispanic voters by highlighting his support for a fence along the Mexican border and "self-deportation" of illegal immigrants. Republican candidates for other posts alienated female voters by backing new abortion laws in some states, 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 Republican Party'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.
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.
Republicans from across the nation will decide Friday whether Priebus, 40, 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. Priebus is widely expected to win re-election, despite a challenge from Maine National Committeeman Mark Willis.
Associated Press writer Steve Peoples contributed to this story.