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Top Republicans face decision on policy vs. message

Gathering in LA first since report urging outreach

GOP chairman Reince Priebus made waves with his “Growth and Opportunity Project” report.

AP/File

GOP chairman Reince Priebus made waves with his “Growth and Opportunity Project” report.

ATLANTA — National Republican leaders made waves recently with a dim view of the party’s future if it fails to expand its core support beyond white males and social conservatives. But weeks after GOP chairman Reince Priebus unveiled the ‘‘Growth and Opportunity Project’’ report, many party officials maintain the problem often is more about flawed messengers saying the wrong things at the wrong times than the policies at issue.

The distinction between policy flaws and communication problems is at the crux of the GOP’s soul-searching as the Republican National Committee convenes this week in Los Angeles for the first time since the report’s release. And it’s a discussion expected to continue for some time as conservatives, moderates, and pragmatists struggle for control of the GOP megaphone. The dynamic has been highlighted in the weeks since the chairman’s call for outreach, with a succession of conservative party figures voicing positions that may alienate the very voters being sought by national party leaders.

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Representative Don Young of Alaska was forced to apologize after referring to Hispanic migrant workers as ‘‘wetbacks.’’ Media titan Donald Trump, who flirted with a presidential run last year, warned against compromising with President Obama on a citizenship path for anyone in the country illegally, saying they’ll just become Democratic voters.

Using social media, Republican National Committee member Dave Agema of Michigan redistributed controversial writings harshly critical of gay Americans. Agema dug in after many Michigan Republicans called for his resignation.

Days later, the head of the Georgia state party, Sue Everhart, said that if same-sex marriage were ‘‘natural,’’ then gay couples ‘‘would have the equipment to have a sexual relationship.’’ She predicted that if the Supreme Court allows federal employee benefits for gay couples, then individuals who are ‘‘straight as an arrow’’ will enter same-sex unions just for the financial perks.

Comments like those have some Republicans reeling.

‘‘It’s extremely, extremely frustrating,’’ said Gregory Steele, a University of North Carolina senior who leads his state’s college GOP group. ‘‘We want the party to have a serious policy discussion about all of these issues going forward, but it’s hard to get to that point with all of these mistakes.’’

Former US senator Olympia Snowe, a Maine Republican who left office in January as one of the party’s last elected New England moderates, deplored the intolerance she says has driven a ‘‘slow and steady erosion of a strong political base.’’

Snowe said, ‘‘For anyone who isn’t already a Republican, how are they going to be drawn in right now?’’

At Log Cabin Republicans, a national group of gay GOP loyalists, Gregory Angelo said the flaps reinforce the image of an inflexible organization. But he also noted Ohio Senator Rob Portman’s recent embrace of same-sex marriage, and described the party right now as going through ‘‘growing pains.’’

But current trends are foreboding for Republicans. They’ve lost the popular vote in five out of the last six presidential elections. In the last two, Obama has won overwhelming majorities of nonwhite voters and younger voters, while the anchors of Republican support — older white voters — have become an increasingly smaller share of the electorate.

Top Republicans both acknowledge the damage such comments have caused, and remain careful to defend the party’s official positions as they call for a wider tent.

Henry Barbour, a Mississippian who helped write the postelection analysis for Priebus, emphasizes that the document shouldn’t be read as a call to change the Republican Party’s position on abortion, same-sex marriage, or immigration. ‘‘In politics, you need to be what you’re for,’’ he said.

The one policy position where many Republicans are eager to give ground is immigration, where Senate Republicans are negotiating with Democrats on a comprehensive overhaul. Yet, they couch these policy shifts on immigration as more of a shift in message.

Over the weekend, Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina went so far as to call Mitt Romney’s arch-conservative position on immigration ‘‘impractical’’ and ‘‘offensive.’’ He was referring specifically to Romney, the party’s presidential candidate last fall, urging immigrants in the country illegally to ‘‘self-deport.’’

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