Republicans know the campaign to win over minority voters is going to be a long-range and gradual project, but they also know the nation's changing demographic makeup gives them no choice.

They meet in Washington beginning Thursday to plot their strategy.

"It's not going to happen overnight," said Rudy Fernandez, a grass-roots coordinator for the Republican National Committee. "It's going to take time, but as long as we keep making incremental increases we're going to be successful in the long run."

Republicans are meeting at a high point for the party.

National GOP Chairman Marc Racicot told party members in a recent memo: "The Republican Party starts 2003 in a better political position than at any time in the last 60 years."

The most crucial task is to develop more support in the Hispanic community, where President Bush is relatively popular. In the 2002 elections, when the GOP increased its hold on the House and won the Senate, Republicans fared well among Hispanics in New York and Florida while Democrats dominated in the Southwest and West.

Beyond its control of the White House and both branches of Congress, the party will take its usual financial advantage into the next round of elections.

Racicot said the crucial next step for Republicans is recruitment of minority candidates.

"We need to reach further," Racicot said in an interview. "We need to recruit earlier and at every level. We want to recruit them to school boards, legislatures, county governments."

Republicans must do a better job of going into minority neighborhoods to build alliances and recruit support, he said.

Republican pollster Linda DiVall said she hopes the party has some strong approaches to deal with "the sheer math of the changing demographics in America."

She warned Republicans after the 1998 midterm elections that they must expand their appeal in minority communities to remain competitive. Two years later, Bush made that a priority of his campaign, then brought in Racicot to head the Republican National Committee with that as a principal goal.

The urgency of the task was reinforced with recent word that the fast-growing Hispanic population has become the nation's largest minority, surpassing blacks.

"Our outreach (in 2002) provided us inspiration," Racicot said. "That mission is not complete."

The party got a reminder that it has a long way to go at a recent meeting with black conservatives. One of those black conservatives, Armstrong Williams, said after the meeting: "The Republican Party has to realize that it cannot be lily white any longer."

Racicot pointed to successes in 2002 including the election of black Lt. Govs. Michael Steele in Maryland and Jennette Bradley in Ohio. Michael Williams, a black Republican, was elected to head the Texas Railroad Commission.

The efforts suffered a setback late last year when then-Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi appeared to praise retiring South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond's 1948 run for president on a segregationist platform. Lott quit the Senate leadership under pressure, and Tennessee Sen. Bill Frist took the post.

Republicans say Frist brings the kind of polished approach to conservative GOP politics that Bush wants.

The president's recent stand against affirmative-action admissions to the University of Michigan, however, could complicate further the GOP's efforts to win minority support. Bush said there are better tools to achieve diversity on campus than race-based quotas, which he alleged the Michigan plan used.

Republicans are counting heavily on Bush's continued popularity. His policies on tax cuts and Iraq are facing increased skepticism, although support remains strong for him personally and for the administration's campaign against terror.