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Looking To Broaden Appeal, RNC Heads To Hollywood

The Republican National Committee is holding its spring meeting in the Democratic stronghold of Hollywood this week — part of an effort to broaden the party's appeal.

So far, there are sharp divisions among RNC delegates about the future direction of the GOP. But there's general agreement that the party isn't effectively communicating its message.

At a sometimes raucous afternoon meeting Wednesday, speaker after speaker walked up to the microphone and made pleas about the future of the GOP. "We need to multiply, not divide," one said. Another urged the party to be more welcoming to newcomers.

When it was Ada Fisher's turn, she had a very pointed message: "Look around the room. There are only three of us who are black in this room."

During an interview after the meeting adjourned, Fisher, North Carolina's national committeewoman, brought it up again. She said one of the biggest problems with the Republican Party today is that it's letting everyone else define it.

Fisher said historically the GOP had a strong record on civil rights, and it should highlight that. But she says Republicans today also shouldn't compromise on their core principles.

"I don't want the party to be 'Democratic lite' — to try to emulate everything that the Democrats have done," she said. "We have to stand for something. We stand for individual responsibility. We stand for free enterprise. We live for these kind of things."

Becoming "Democratic lite" is a prominent concern being uttered during breaks in the halls and in closed-door strategy sessions in Hollywood this week. The spring meeting is the first major gathering of party activists since RNC Chairman Reince Priebus unveiled his harsh post-game assessment of the 2012 election.

Priebus' "Growth and Opportunity" report calls for expanding the GOP's tent to include more women and minorities, and to be more inclusive of gays and lesbians. Several prominent social conservative groups sent Priebus a harshly worded letter this week saying Republicans owe many of their successes to faith-based values voters. And they threatened to leave the party.

It's safe to say Priebus also irritated some people here.

"It's a little bit taking it on the chin for the Romney campaign. The Romney campaign fumbled the ball, I think, and so give credit to Reince for kind of taking it on the chin for them," said Curly Haugland, an RNC national committeeman from North Dakota.

"We don't need to single out a particular ethnic group or a particular voting bloc and try to do a focus-group-tested message, we just need to be honest about our principles and stand behind them," Haugland added.

The Priebus report cites focus groups calling the GOP "out of touch" and "the party of stuffy old men."

"I'm an older woman, but I'm not stuffy," said Linda Ackerman, an RNC delegate from California. "I honestly do not understand why people think that the Republicans are the country club people, the wealthy people. I can tell you, I'm an average American."

Ackerman says her son is unemployed. She's a manager at a water utility in Orange County.

Orange County was once one of the country's biggest Republican strongholds, but Democrats have made some gains there lately.

"The demographics — obviously they're changing dramatically, and again I think we did not keep up with how quickly things were changing," Ackerman said.

To win in Orange County or anywhere else, Ackerman said, Republicans are going to have to bring their message into communities they may not have traditionally been in, even if it's uncomfortable for some.

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Kirk Siegler
As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.
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