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Clash of ideas on display as GOP plans its future

WASHINGTON — The dueling faces of a conflicted political party were on display for all to see at the just-concluded Republican National Committee meeting.

One was younger, more diverse, and tech-savvy, part of the RNC’s carefully crafted plan to inspire confidence that the GOP is trying to grow beyond its shrinking, older, largely white base. The other — one that hasn’t evolved since the GOP’s back-to-back presidential losses — was more prominent in the hallways, occasionally taking center stage at the Washington hotel where party delegates from around the country met to discuss party business.

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The reminder of the divisions comes a year after Chairman Reince Priebus published a report aimed at modernizing the party and boosting its ranks, and as Republicans eye their best chance at taking control of both houses of Congress since 2002.

‘‘If our party doesn’t unite, we’re never going to win,’’ said Jonelle Fulmer, a Republican National Committee member from Arkansas.

Following the recommendations in the Priebus-commissioned post-mortem of the GOP’s losing 2012 presidential campaign, the national party launched a multipronged strategy a year ago to reach out to younger voters, women, and racial and ethnic minorities, groups who sided more heavily with Democrats, especially President Obama.

Yet, awkward comments about contraception and women’s reproductive systems and chatter over Michigan National Committee member Dave Agema’s derogatory comments about gays and Muslims obscured the party’s attempt to feature its efforts at last week’s meeting.

By the end of the three-day conference, Priebus and Michigan Republican Party chairman Bobby Schostak were calling on Agema to quit, ‘‘for the good of the party.’’

The party adopted a strategy a year ago to reach outto younger voters, women, and racial and ethnic groups who sided more heavily with Democrats.

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The only other public comment from party officials about Agema came later during a news conference with the RNC’s diversity outreach team.

‘‘There’s no room in the Republican Party for those kinds of comments,’’ said Jennifer Korn, the GOP’s national director for Hispanic initiatives.

Agema released a statement Friday night apologizing for his use of words. But he declined to step down from the committee.

‘‘In retrospect, I acknowledge errors in judgment and how I addressed them, feel badly about the impact this has had on many here in the land I love, and have learned valuable lessons about the requirements and responsibilities that are to be expected and honored by all who are in leadership positions — including myself,’’ his statement said.

The episode created a sharp dissonance with the meeting’s official program, which included sessions on the party’s organizational investments in digital, data-gathering technology, and personnel. That’s an area that helped Obama’s campaign carry traditional Republican strongholds in 2008 and 2012.

Another sharp contrast occurred when a panel of women from an array of racial and socioeconomic backgrounds discussed the party’s up-and-coming leaders, just minutes after former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee’s speech in which he accused Democrats of casting women as slaves to government-sponsored birth control.

Huckabee said Democrats ‘‘insult the women of America by making them believe that they are helpless without Uncle Sugar coming in and providing for them a prescription each month for birth control because they cannot control their libido or their reproductive system without the help of the government.’’

The clash between the RNC leadership’s party-broadening goals and the lingering image of a party arguing with itself over tone and tolerance reflects the division that’s playing out in Republican congressional primary campaigns across the country.

Despite the competing messages, there still were signs that Priebus’s plans were moving forward.

Priebus hired 25-year-old Raffi Williams as national youth political director and tasked him with running a program aimed at identifying Republican-leaning voters. It’s similar to an effort begun by the Michigan Republican Party to use Facebook and other online social media to get people to identify like-minded conservatives.

Run by digital media strategist and former advertising executive Chuck Defeo, the project conceivably could help Republicans win close elections.

‘‘We’re starting behind the eight ball but we’re building a good machine, and we’re doing it across the country from the ground up,’’ he said.

Alex Smith, 24, said Republicans can only gain back the edge they had with young voters they narrowly held in 2000 by updating the language and the tools that they use to reach her and her peers.

‘‘Channels and messages matter,’’ said the Seton Hall University law school student and chairwoman of the College Republican National Committee. ‘‘If you’re talking to younger voters on television, radio, or direct mail, you’re not reaching them.’’

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