Battle Underway for Soul of the GOP

Republicans are battling an image of rigid conservatism.

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Former Secretary of State Colin Powell is seen in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Thursday, May 31, 2012, during a ceremony to unveil the official portraits of former President George W. Bush and former first lady Laura Bush.
Former Secretary of State Colin Powell is seen in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Thursday, May 31, 2012, during a ceremony to unveil the official portraits of former President George W. Bush and former first lady Laura Bush.

The battle for the future of the Republican party is getting more intense.

Prominent conservative leaders are calling for a rethinking of the GOP's message and a refurbishing of its image, and Democrats argue that unless the GOP changes, it will become a regional party of the right based largely in the South.

The Republicans have lost two presidential elections in a row. The party's support among key constituencies, including Latinos and unmarried women, is eroding. And majority Republicans in the House of Representatives—the GOP's last political bastion in Washington—are badly divided over a number of key issues including how to deal with President Obama over the rising federal debt.

Jim DeMint, a former Republican senator from South Carolina and president-elect of the conservative Heritage Foundation, says he will begin an effort at Heritage to rethink and improve the conservative message. "We must take our case to the people ourselves, and we must start where all good marketing starts: with research," DeMint wrote in The Washington Post Sunday.

[BROWSE: Political Cartoons on the Republican Party]

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell is seen in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Thursday, May 31, 2012, during a ceremony to unveil the official portraits of former President George W. Bush and former first lady Laura Bush.
Former Secretary of State Colin Powell is seen in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Thursday, May 31, 2012, during a ceremony to unveil the official portraits of former President George W. Bush and former first lady Laura Bush.

"Conservative policies have proved their worth time and time again. If we're not communicating in a way that makes that clear, we are doing a disservice to our fellow citizens. We need to test the market and our message to communicate more effectively."

Conservative strategist William Kristol, former chief of staff to Vice President Dan Quayle, is urging Republicans to create institutions such as think tanks to generate new ideas and improve conservatives' electability.

From the center, former Secretary of State Colin Powell joined the debate on Sunday, arguing that the GOP needs to separate itself from a faction that has demonstrated "a dark vein of intolerance." Powell added: "What I mean by that is they still sort of look of down on minorities."

Among the examples he cited was former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin saying that President Obama was "shuckin' and jivin'" when he discussed recent attacks on Americans in Libya. Powell said Palin used a "racial-era slave term" that was offensive.

Powell, one of the most popular Republican moderates in the country, said the GOP is having "an identity problem" and needs to "take a very hard look at itself and understand that the country has changed" demographically. He told NBC's "Meet the Press" that the Republicans also need to change or "they're going to be in trouble."

[READ: Colin Powell Says GOP Having an Identity Problem]

Powell, an African American, is also former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He endorsed Democrat Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012.

On the Democratic side, pollster Geoff Garin told me that the Republican majority in the House is based mostly on support in the former "Confederacy and the Sun Belt." Another problem for the GOP, Garin said, is that "their brand is completely in the dumper" and up to 70 percent of Americans routinely tell pollsters that they are disappointed with Republican leaders in Congress.

Garin said the party is gaining a reputation for being "obstructionist," defending the rich, and being preoccupied with conservative social issues that are out of the mainstream.

Ken Walsh covers the White House and politics for U.S. News. He writes the daily blog "Ken Walsh's Washington" for usnews.com, and is the author of "The Presidency" column for the U.S. News Weekly. He can be reached at kwalsh@usnews.com and followed on Facebook and Twitter.