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.
GOP 'Cannot Survive'
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.
"That is not acceptable because the party cannot survive with numbers like that," said Lionel Sosa, a San Antonio advertising executive, who has played a role in crafting the GOP's pitch to Hispanics since Ronald Reagan's 1980 campaign for the presidency.
And because Obama and the Democrats are likely to dominate the black vote for the foreseeable future, Sosa said it is imperative that Republicans make a major investment in courting Hispanics.
"The first thing the GOP needs to do is follow George W. Bush's advice," he said. "Be compassionate conservatives. And never be anti-immigrant."
Winning over black voters won't nearly be as simple for the party that was founded in the 1850s with the goal of ending slavery. After dominating the black vote for roughly a century, the GOP employed a so-called southern strategy starting in the 1960s by subtly appealing to white prejudice in the South, which was then the fastest-growing part of the country.
Former Republican Party chairman Ken Mehlman apologized for that chapter in the party's history in 2005 as he pushed to expand the ethnic makeup of the GOP.
"Some Republicans gave up on winning the African-American vote, looking the other way or trying to benefit politically from racial polarization," Mehlman said at the 2005 NAACP convention. "I come here as Republican chairman to tell you we were wrong."
But the GOP's image was dealt yet another blow among blacks during the 2006 Tennessee Senate race when the RNC paid for an attack ad against Harold Ford Jr. featuring a bare-shouldered white woman smiling into the camera and saying, "I met Harold at the Playboy Party." The spot ended with the blonde whispering, "Harold, call me."
The ad was widely criticized as playing to the fears of whites who believe interracial relationships are taboo.
Ford, a Democrat who is black, was narrowly defeated in the race by the Republican candidate Bob Corker, who is white.
'White, Southern Men'
"The problem is the party has essentially become a party of white, southern men," said National Public Radio correspondent Juan Williams, the author of "Enough: The Phony Leaders, Dead-End Movements, and the Culture of Failure That Are Undermining Black America -- and What We Can Do About It."
"They don't have a future in their current state except as an opposition force.
"So, if you get Steele, or you get Blackwell, you get an opportunity ... It would be a tremendous breakthrough for the party," said Williams, who is also a political analyst for Fox News.
The election of Saltsman or Dawson, on the other hand, would be a major setback for the GOP, considering the political landscape, Williams added. "Everybody is going to talk about that and everybody is going to brand them as, if not an enemy, then someone who is not comfortable, or not a friend of the minority community."
Saltsman, who distributed the controversial CD, was not immediately available to comment. Dawson said his record shows he'll be an advocate for people of color if elected, despite once holding a membership in a white-only country club.
"My brand is worn by people like Ron Thomas, the African-American who was my first hire as political director of the state party, and by Glenn McCall, the first black national committeeman from South Carolina," Dawson said in a statement. "My winning brand will help close the credibility gap Republicans have, not just with minority voters, but with all voters by returning to our timeless principles that resonate with people of all backgrounds."
GOP Attempts to Diversify
On Mehlman's watch, the GOP aimed to advance African-American leadership, nominating Steele to carry its banner in the Maryland Senate race, along with Blackwell in the race for Ohio's governorship. Former Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Lynn Swann even ran as a Republican in the Pennsylvania governor's race. All were soundly defeated.
Still, that Steele and Blackwell have a realistic chance at becoming chairman of the Republican National Committee shows how serious the GOP is about expanding its coalition, GOP strategist Dave Winston said.
"What you're watching in terms of the chairman's race is ... how do we get to this majority coalition? I think that includes all groups at this point," he said. "That's the general feeling."