They say they want a leader brash enough to protect conservative orthodoxy and open-minded enough to help the Republican Party change its image: white, old, and male. And there's no shortage of Republicans angling to fill a void in party leadership as the GOP's future dominates the sideline discussion during a three-day summit of conservative leaders.
From the dozens of luminaries on stage to the thousands of activists crowding hallways, Republicans at this week's Conservative Political Action Conference are looking for a way forward for a party that has lost four of the past six presidential elections. For many, the path to 2016 begins with a lesson drawn from Mitt Romney's failed presidential bid: They want a candidate who stays true to conservative principles but also pushes a more inclusive message. They acknowledge it's a delicate balance.
"We ran the wrong candidate," 58-year-old South Dakotan Bob Fischer said Thursday as the conference began at Maryland's National Harbor, just south of Washington. "We need a Republican Party with backbone."
But that's not all. His sentiment was echoed in interviews with a dozen conservatives. But most also called for leadership that attracts a more diverse electorate — particularly the Hispanic voters who helped President Barack Obama win re-election last fall.
These conservatives say they're encouraged by the Republican leaders who stacked the speaking program, potential as well as presidential candidates among them. There was, it seemed, a broad recognition that the party must evolve to find success in the coming elections.
A banner across the conference stage signaled change might be afoot: "America's future: the next generation of conservatives."
"The GOP of old has grown stale and moss-covered," said Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who headlined Thursday's speaking program along with Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.
Rubio said the party needs to aim its message at middle-class families, adding: "There has to be a home and a movement in America for people who believe in limited government, constitutional principles and a free enterprise system, and that should be us."
The conference in some ways presented a clash of new and old.
Plenty of possible 2016 presidential contenders were on hand, including Rubio, Paul, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. But the gathering also is featuring appearances by former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and Donald Trump, outspoken conservatives who still carry weight with the party's most passionate voters for their vigorous criticism of the Obama administration. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who praised Obama's hurricane response last fall, wasn't invited.
At the same time, not complete agreement on how to reach out, either. There is concern here — just as with other Republicans across the nation — that the party may become too inclusive in the name of winning election.
"I'm a firm believer that if the Republican Party is going to have some success, it's going to do so by being a conservative party and not a home for everybody. That's how you grow," Al Cardenas, chairman of the American Conservative Union, said Thursday. He added that the party could expand its tent "by convincing others, persuading others that yours is the way. And you build your tent by reaching out to the new demographics of America, not with a watered down version of who we ought to be."
The conference comes at a critical time for Republicans. The Republican National Committee is preparing to release a comprehensive plan next week — dubbed the Growth and Opportunity Project — to help improve the Republican brand.
Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster who advises Rubio, said the party was in the same position that Democrats found themselves in in 1988 when President George H.W. Bush succeeded President Ronald Reagan.
"Along came Bill Clinton, said I'm a new Democrat and ushered in a new period of Democratic dominance of the White House," Ayres said. "I am absolutely convinced that we are only one candidate and one election away from resurrection."
But in the crowded hallways of the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center, 18-year-old Nicole Johnson isn't so sure. She describes herself as "very conservative" but said she sometimes feels out of place among the traditional Republican crowd.
"The GOP has this tag on it that says rich, old, white man. They need to send a better message," said Johnson, a high school senior and president of Young Republican club at Washington's National Cathedral School.
Alec Jones, 23, a senior at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, Miss., said the party needs a "mix of pragmatism and principles" and a renewed focus on civil liberties and economic issues that resonate not only with Republicans but also "disgruntled Democrats."
Jones, who wore a red "Stand With Rand" sticker on the coat of his lapel, said young GOP leaders like Paul and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas offer a fresh approach, but he cautioned that the party can't rely solely on attractive candidates.
"We can't put all of our stock in candidates because we've done that in the past and lost big," Jones said, pointing to a need for a "re-establishment of who we are as a party."
"In a lot of ways, Barack Obama is one of the best things that happened to the Republican Party because he's forced us to reassess who we are and where we're going," Jones said.
Down the hallway, 60-year-old Eileen Beamer, of Virginia, said she's looking for a Republican leader who focuses more on solutions and less on criticizing Obama.
"We have to give people a reason to join the party," she said.
Like others here, she's reluctant to support a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants, but she also faults the Romney campaign for not doing enough to connect with minority groups. Above all, she says Romney didn't fight hard enough.
"He was too nice a guy," she said.
Fischer, of South Dakota, said the new generation of conservative leaders offers cause for optimism.
"The Republican Party is the conservative party. They may be a little disheartened. But they're ready to fight," he said.
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CPAC 2013: http://conservative.org/cpac/