NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — Republicans have lost the popular vote in five of the past six presidential elections. They're losing among women, voters under 30, and among Hispanic, African-American and Asian voters by huge margins. Their white, male base represents an ever-shrinking piece of the electorate.
But as Republican leaders and activists grapple with the GOP's identity and path forward, conservatives are increasingly pushing back on the notion that the party must adjust its positions to remain viable.
What's really needed, say those gathered this week for the Conservative Political Action Conference, is a more positive articulation of the conservative message so it has broader appeal.
"We need to draw into our party people from every corner of society because conservative principles, and not liberal dogma, best reflect the ideals that made this nation great. We should be united in the principle that everyone should be given the opportunity to rise to the top, to raise a family, and to be free," former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said Friday night in the most substantive speech of the three-day event.
"The popular media narrative is that this country has shifted away from conservative ideals, as evidenced by the last two presidential elections," Texas Gov. Rick Perry said. "That might be true, if Republicans had actually nominated conservative candidates in 2008 and 2012."
The American Conservative Union's annual CPAC gathering for decades has been a haven for highlighting conservative ideas and thinkers, and invariably offers fiery, red meat conservative speeches. This year's CPAC, coming after President Barack Obama's comfortable re-election, is more listless and often featured defensiveness about suggestions that the party's agenda is contributing to its struggles with national elections.
Sen. Marco Rubio's biggest applause line Thursday: "We don't need a new idea. There is an idea, the idea is called America, and it still works."
Still, Rubio echoed other featured speakers in suggesting the GOP must show it is on the side of middle class and struggling Americans — in a way Mitt Romney failed to do.
Mingling among the book-signers, NRA and anti-abortion booths, and occasional fellows dressed in colonial militiaman garb, activists agreed the party must connect with everyday Americans and reach a more diverse group of voters.
"We need to do more outreach to the Latino and the black community. We were pretty silent on it the last election," said Arne Owens, 59, of Richmond, Va. "But I do think we need to re-emphasize the core conservative message, talk about pocketbook issues, the free market and families. To paraphrase Ronald Reagan, 'no pale pastels.' Let's have some bright colors that show the contrast, that show the difference."
American Conservative Union president Al Cardenas argues that Republicans need to stand firm on conservative principles, but also "recruit competent, eloquent people, which we haven't done a good job of in the past, and you've got to reach out to all Americans, which we haven't done in the past."
He added, "Diluting our principles for the sake of expanding our tent is the surest way to lose in the future."
One area the party is trying to change is on immigration, shedding harsh rhetoric of the last few years and embracing changes that go beyond border enforcement.
"Every single month for the next 20 years, 50,000 Hispanic youngsters will turn 18 years old and become eligible to vote," Republican pollster Whit Ayres said during a panel discussion. "People can complain about it, they can wring their hands about it, they can have angst about it. But the one thing they can't do about it is change it. That is the America that is coming, and if we hope to have a vibrant center-right coalition, it sure better reach out aggressively."
CPAC organizers and virtually all speakers were on the same page in embracing legal status for undocumented immigrants, but their efforts to expand the GOP tent only go so far.
"For those in our movement who want to abandon our country's moral underpinning so we can win, permit me to paraphrase a great teacher and ask, 'What does it profit a movement to gain the country and lose its own soul?' " said former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.
CPAC did not invite two of the most popular Republican governors, Chris Christie of New Jersey and Bob McDonnell of Virginia, because of qualms about their fiscal conservatism. And for the second year in a row, CPAC refused to allow the gay Republican group GOProud as a sponsor.
"How do we expect anyone to listen to anything else we have to say if they think that conservatives hate their gay family members and friends," said GOProud president Jimmy LaSaliva.
Evelyn Weinstein, 19, a college student in New Hampshire, agreed with holding firm to fiscal conservatism and small government but said, "The whole social conservatism segment of the party needs to get completely thrown out. . . . With the way my generation is starting to look at social issues, moving forward the Republican Party is just not going to survive any elections if it doesn't change."
GOP leaders have long said a strong party is held up by three pillars: fiscal conservatism, social conservatism and strong national defense.
More and more Republicans, however, are second-guessing party orthodoxy on social issues and national security.
But on Capitol Hill, most Republican leaders are happy to make old arguments.
In recent days Senate Republicans pushed an amendment to de-fund Obamacare and the House GOP rallied around a re-introduced version of Rep. Paul Ryan's austere budget blueprint, which Democrats used as a cudgel in the elections.
"Much of the reason Barack Obama got elected president, initially, is because too many Republicans failed to stand for principle," newly elected Texas Sen. Ted Cruz said in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times. "One of the most encouraging things we're seeing is a new generation of leaders stepping forward and standing for liberty, standing for growth, standing for opportunity."
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal on Friday argued that the GOP is sending the wrong message to voters by fixating on the federal budget and should not become "the party of austerity."
"This obsession with zeroes has everyone in our party focused on what? The government," he said. "By obsessing with zeroes on the budget spreadsheet, we send a not-so-subtle signal that the focus of our economy is the phony economy of Washington, D.C., instead of the real economy out in Billings or in Baton Rouge."