GOP Still in Search of Soul, Experts Say

Mitt Romney remains a GOP punching bag as party looks ahead.

(Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

Republican leaders differ on how the party should address immigration and its own demographic trends going forward.

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A panel of Republican strategists discussing the future of their party offered plenty of critiques for the 2012 GOP performance but few concrete answers to the party's popularity problem with a wide swath of general election voters Wednesday.

[OPINION: How Republicans Can Win the Future]

Gathered at the liberal leaning think-tank the Brookings Institution, the GOP experts – including Republican consultant Alex Castellanos, National Review reporter Robert Costa, Republican strategist Liz Mair and Real Clear Politics demographic and trend specialist Sean Trende – agreed the party needs a shake-up. But what kind?

"Do Republicans compromise what they believe and become Democrats-lite and lose? Or do they keep talking about things the way they do now and lose? Neither of those seems very attractive," said Castellanos. "There's a different way and that is if the old way doesn't work there's something new, let's try that."

That "something new" is the missing ingredient – but besides noting conservatives need to 'improve' messaging, demographic outreach, and technological efforts, the panel had few solutions.

"For the first time in probably 100 years, the working class white vote doesn't have a natural home in the party," said Trende. "Mitt Romney did not offer much to working class whites. If you look at the map, there are multiple ways to skin the electoral cat and I think we've focused far too heavily on one path."

Criticism of Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, was a theme.

"Parties cannot be all things to all people," Trende said.

[BROWSE: Political Cartoons on the Republican Party]

Mair said Republicans face serious demographic challenges, particularly with Hispanics now the fastest growing bloc of voters. But they need to learn how to curry favor genuinely and not just popping into a Mexican restaurant a couple of months before an election, Mair said.

"It's a continuous, ongoing process and I think the Republican Party is generally pretty bad at that, we're pretty bad at that with a lot of demographic groups and I think that is what we're talking about with working class whites as well," Fair said. "I think that's a problem, technology is a problem, certainly optics and image are a problem and message has also been a problem."

Castellanos adds that since President Barack Obama's election, Republicans have had a reputation as the party of no, but when it came to 2012 and finding their footing and out of the bad economy, "[voters] didn't trust us with the steering wheel, we didn't make that case." One thing is clear, said Costa, who covers congressional Republicans daily.

"The right's not ready to fight a culture war right now," he said, adding that when you "put the mic away" many top Republicans don't have a problem with gay marriage.

[READ: Has the GOP Lost Latinos on Immigration?]

Amidst all the spinning tires, Costa said the party may just need a transformational figure to come along, but he's not convinced one is emerging yet.

"I don't see a Bill Clinton yet in the Republican sphere," he said.

Castellanos added, "Democrats won the middle by welfare reform, school uniforms, 100,000 cops – if the Democrats can win the middle with Republican ideas, maybe Republicans can, too."

Despite facing a steep climb when it comes to winning a national election, Republicans are favored to retain a majority in the House and possibly wrestle control of the Senate away from Democrats in the 2014 midterm election.

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