Growing Pains

Can the GOP learn to believe in change?

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Justin Fantl for TIME

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In Brooklyn, conservative black clergy told Priebus about the harm done by Republican efforts to cleanse voter rolls. In Denver, Hispanic Republicans talked about the pain caused by Mitt Romney's promise of "self-deportation." In California, Priebus met with an elected Asian-American Republican who regularly sees 10 Democrats at community events she attends alone. Even the donors were restless. "Look, you are young. You are smart. If you want a job, I'll give you a job down the hallway," Priebus remembers a major Republican donor in New York City telling him in December. "But here's the deal. If you are not going to be big and bold, don't waste my time. Don't waste your kids' time. Don't waste your wife's time."

Republican leaders say they like the proposed changes. House Speaker John Boehner and majority leader Eric Cantor have embraced the report; so has former House Speaker and occasional presidential candidate Newt Gingrich. The question now is whether the conservative base of the party is willing to come along for a big and bold ride. Some of the immediate reviews are not so positive. John Tate, the 2012 campaign manager for Ron Paul, said the Priebus plans to shorten the primary process and move away from caucuses could tilt the playing field to well-funded establishment candidates. "They are recommending doing exactly the opposite of what they should be doing to reactivate the grassroots and increase the base of the party," he said.

Priebus made his proposals at the very moment when the uncompromising guardians of the party's right wing had gathered outside of Washington to bash the capital's consultant class--that collection of professional campaign technicians who know winning in presidential elections means keeping the party from veering too far to the right. "Stop listening to the professional politicians and consultants most responsible for those political train wrecks," warned longtime activist L. Brent Bozell III in a typical turn that garnered huge applause. Other mainstays of social conservatism, like the Eagle Forum's Phyllis Schlafly and Faith and Freedom Coalition chairman Ralph Reed, warn that they will fight any effort to change the party's approach to gay marriage. "If someone tries," warns Reed, "they're going to have to get through me." Says Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council: "Obviously the RNC report was designed to pander to the GOP's wealthy elites."

Back at his office two blocks from the U.S. Capitol, Priebus sounds no less determined as he sits before a color-coded congressional map of the country, still mostly red, despite the fact that House Democratic candidates attracted about 1.4 million more votes in 2012 than Republicans did. "I am not going to sit here," he says, "and grind away as chairman of the party and do the same old thing that has always been done."

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