OXON HILL, Md. – Tired of election defeats, Republicans are looking at new candidates and new ideas - specifically in regards to immigration – to revamp the ailing party and draw in new voters.
At the ongoing Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC, many GOP leaders are focusing on immigration in the wake of the presidential election that saw President Barack Obama claim 72 percent of the Latino vote, compared to Republican challenger Mitt Romney's 27 percent.
"You can be conservative and be for immigration reform,'' Jennifer Korn of the American Action Network, told the crowd, according to USA Today. A guest-worker program "helps our business, it helps our economy, and it is something big labor is against.''
A bipartisan group of senators — which includes Republican Marco Rubio of Florida and New Jersey Democrat Robert Menendez — have reached a tentative deal on a systematic overhaul of the country’s immigration system, which covers border security, guest workers, employer verification and a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants already in this country.
Although thorny details remain to be negotiated and success is far from certain, the development heralds the start of what could be the most significant effort in years toward overhauling the nation's inefficient patchwork of immigration laws.
Rep. Raúl Labrador of Idaho said that immigration policy is "a golden opportunity" for Republicans, but added that "Republicans will not support any immigration reform without a vibrant guest-worker program.''
Kicking off the conference's first keynote speech, Rubio actually avoided speaking about immigration and instead focused his message on the need to appeal to middle-class families, noting: "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 within the GOP.
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 features 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 by CPAC director Al Cardenas..
There is concern here — just as with other Republicans across the nation — that the party may become too inclusive in the name of winning elections.
"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," said Cardenas, chairman of the American Conservative Union. 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.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.