BY STEVE PEOPLES
The Republican Party launched its latest effort Thursday to sell itself to a more diverse segment of the population, acknowledging a glaring weakness in the GOP's ability to attract new voters in a country whose demographics are rapidly changing.
Some prominent Republicans expressed immediate skepticism at the party's plans to shine a spotlight on its younger, minority up-and-comers. But Republican leaders say they can help broaden the party's appeal by changing the faces of the GOP's primary messengers. At stake is the Republican Party's ability to compete against Democrats in elections for years to come.
"We have this stereotype of Republicans being old, white, Anglo-Saxon men. But there's people like me that have been out there working for years," said 30-year-old New Hampshire state Rep. Marilinda Garcia, one of four people featured in a "Rising Stars" panel at the RNC's summer meeting in Boston. "So they're like, 'Why not have her talk about our values instead of Newt Gingrich all the time?'"
RNC spokesmen have been instructed to promote Republicans like Garcia in media interviews, while other staffers have been hired to live and work in minority communities to pitch Republican values. GOP leaders say it's an unprecedented effort.
Doubts by some leading Republicans underscored the continuing identity crisis for a party still struggling to regroup after a painful 2012 election season.
"This is a baby step," said former RNC Chairman Michael Steele, an African-American. "We're talking 50-plus years of separation between African-Americans and the GOP that has only become progressively worse over the last 10 or so years. ... This stuff will not get done overnight."
"At this point, like many Hispanic conservatives, I have to see it to believe it," said Alfonso Aguilar, executive director of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles and a part of the George W. Bush administration. "I'm familiar with RNC efforts toward the Hispanic community that go back a long time."
Indeed, the GOP's latest push to court minority voters follows similar efforts by Republican leaders dating back at least to the 1980s, when the GOP under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush repeatedly declared black and Hispanic outreach a priority. Some Republicans suggest that things won't change in earnest until the party embraces different policies and abandon's anti-immigrant rhetoric.
Steele cited efforts by Republican legislatures to disenfranchise minority voters by passing strict voter identification laws, while Aguilar and others cited consistent resistance among House Republicans to a comprehensive immigration reform bill.
"You can't just deliver any message," Frank Fahrenkopf, an RNC chairman from 1983 to 1989, said of party policies. "You've got to deliver the right one."
Despite decades of effort, the Republican Party took a step backward in last year's presidential contest among women and minorities. Women voted for President Barack Obama by an 11-point margin in 2012, and they have not backed a GOP candidate for president since Reagan's successful bid for re-election in 1984.
Although last year's nominee, Mitt Romney, improved on John McCain's margin of victory among whites in 2008, Romney fared worse than McCain among Hispanic and Asian voters, who make up a growing share of the U.S. population.
RNC Chairman Reince Priebus says the committee has already hired more than 150 staffers across the country to help court new voters.
"What's different this time is you can look at the numbers," he said. "We're doing things that have never been done before in our party."
The newest piece is the RNC's "Rising Stars" program, which debuted with four members:
—Garcia, first elected to the New Hampshire legislature at 23.
—Karin Agness, founder and president of the Network of enlightened Women, or NeW.
—Scott G. Erickson, a San Jose, Calif., police officer for 15 years and a conservative writer.
—T.W. Shannon, an African-American and speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives.
Four more rising stars were to be added when the committee meets again in four months. The RNC also has created an online database that allows staffers to quickly find fresh faces for media interviews.
Preibus suggested that new faces will matter and downplayed the need for his party to embrace new policies, such as comprehensive immigration reform.
"I'm not disagreeing that it's not an extremely important issue," he said of immigration reform, "It's not the end all, be all, either."
The comments come nine months after he endorsed an RNC report that said otherwise.
"We must embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform," the internal report found. "If we do not, our party's appeal will continue to shrink to its core constituencies only."
AP Director of Polling Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.