Diversity and inclusion have become key buzz words in Republican circles as the beleaguered party looks to bounce back from resounding defeats in Congress and the White House.
With President-elect Barack Obama preparing to take office next week as the nation's first black president, the Republican Party is poised to perhaps make history of its own at the end of the month, as two viable black candidates, Michael Steele and Kenneth Blackwell, compete for the party's chairmanship.
Steele and Blackwell are part of a six-way race to become chairman of the Republican National Committee, which includes Katon Dawson, the South Carolina Republican chairman who quit his membership in an all-white country club before entering the race. Another contender is Tennessee party chairman Chip Saltsman, who was widely criticized for giving party members a holiday CD that included the song "Barack, the Magic Negro," an incident that one strategist said may cost him the election.
And while the election of either Steele, the former lieutenant governor of Maryland, or Blackwell, the former Ohio secretary of state, would go a long way toward shedding the party's image as a bastion of white male dominance, leading Republicans say the party is risking its long-term viability if it cannot make greater inroads with voters of color.
"The electoral map has changed," said GOP media consultant Alex Castellanos, who is backing Steele for the GOP chairmanship. "The GOP can't be reduced to the old white southern country club party, and if we don't expand our ability to reach more female and minority voters ... there aren't enough fish for us to get a good meal. The Republicans need more than token ethnic representation or leadership. We need a message."
Other political observers agree that a change in leadership will not be a quick fix to the party's challenges.
"As Republicans grapple with November's losses, there has been a lot of talk about the party's use of technology as well as the 'tone and tenor' that it brought to the immigration debate," said Teddy Davis, ABC News' deputy political director. "But, so far, there has been very little discussion of fresh ways in which conservative ideas can be used to address people's pocketbook concerns. Much of that may not come until the GOP picks a presidential nominee in 2012."
The inability to craft a consistent message for voters of color is partially responsible for the political climate that helped catapult Obama to the presidency, experts say, while leaving the Democrats one congressional seat shy of having a filibuster-proof majority.
It proved costly for Republicans in November as an Obama rout of Sen. John McCain among Hispanics helped Obama cruise to victory in traditionally red southwestern states like Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada. Obama won among the nation's fastest-growing ethnic group by a 2-to-1 margin, according to a Pew Hispanic Center Report.
When President George W. Bush won a second term in 2004, he did so with 44 percent of the Hispanic vote, up from his 35 percent total in 2000. Bush's stance on immigration reform brought Hispanics into the fold in droves. But the Republicans squandered those gains in this election cycle, experts say, in large part because of anger among Hispanics about the party's tougher position against illegal immigration.