May 29, 2013 10:24:38 AM
WASHINGTON -- The Republican Party, having lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections, confronts a dilemma that's easier to describe than to solve: How can it broaden its appeal to up-for-grabs voters without alienating its conservative base?
There's no consensus yet on how to do it. With the next election three years away, Republicans are tiptoeing around policy changes even as they size up potential candidates who range from tea party heroes to pragmatic governors in Republican- and Democratic-leaning states.
There's a partial road map, but it's more than two decades old, and the other party drafted it. Democrats, sick of losing elections and being tagged as out-of-touch liberals, moved their party toward the center and rallied behind Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton in 1992.
Strategists in both parties say Clinton's achievement, however impressive, may look modest compared to what a Republican leader must do to construct a new winning formula, given the nation's changing demographics.
"Our challenge was to get voters back," said Al From, a chief architect of Clinton's political rise. "Their challenge is harder: get voters to come into a new coalition."
That will be complicated, From said, because the Republicans' conservative base "is more demanding and more important" than the Democrats' liberal base.
An array of Republican campaign veterans agree. They say the party's loyal base of conservative activists -- including evangelical Christians, anti-tax crusaders and anti-abortion advocates -- is too big, ideological and vital to be treated with anything but great care and respect. Republicans will go nowhere if they lose a hard-core conservative every time they pick up a new unaligned voter with a more moderate message.
While they circle that conundrum, Republican leaders hope for a charismatic nominee in the mold of Clinton or Ronald Reagan. They yearn for someone who can appeal to less ideological voters without prompting conservatives to feel their principles are losing primacy.