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Republicans start process of moving forward after election defeat

J. Scott Applewhite / AP

FILE - In this April 5, 2011 file photo, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., touts his 2012 federal budget during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington. Ryan is getting his groove back. A month after the GOP's presidential ticket lost an election, the party's vice presidential nominee finds himself comfortably back in his political wheelhouse on Capitol Hill and in the thick of a debate over how to avert automatic tax increases and spending cuts that many economists fear could cripple the economy if Congress doesn't head them off by Jan. 1. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)


Republican luminaries like Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio have begun to step forward to call for the GOP to re-fashion itself as a more broadly appealing party. But in truth, the work of deciphering the party's path forward has hardly begun.

It'll take more than a handful of speeches just a few weeks after the election to accomplish the task of remaking the Republican Party into a more appealing brand. The Republican National Committee has established a task force to conduct a full review of the 2012 election and how the party might proceed, but its work has only just begun; a group of digital operatives met Thursday in Washington for one of the initial autopsy sessions.

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But the review could stretch for months, through the course of December's fiscal cliff negotiations and the RNC's meetings to choose officials in January (not to mention the holiday season). And scores of outside organizations are now working on their own contributions to the party-wide soul searching effort that began in the wake of  Mitt Romney's loss to President Barack Obama and disappointing showings in down-ballot campaigns.

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And some Republicans counsel that a sharp reorientation might not even be needed.

“It's idiotic to look at the election night results and draw gigantic conclusions that the end of the world is here,” said Dave Carney, a Republican consultant who served as Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s chief strategist. “We have a lot to learn, and we shouldn't look at it with rose-colored glasses. But we shouldn't panic, either.”

That hasn't halted some leading Republicans -- including possible 2016 presidential hopefuls -- from trying to harness the process, and put their own imprint upon it.

Rubio, a Florida senator, spoke Tuesday at a dinner honoring the late GOP vice presidential candidate Jack Kemp, in which he emphasized a sort of conservatism that would focus squarely on the "middle class" -- a term he mentioned 30 times during his remarks at the dinner.

Rubio shared the stage with Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, fresh off of defeat as Romney's running mate. He also emphasized a more broadly-inclusive Republican Party (and implicitly distancing himself from Romney's infamous remarks about the "47 percent" of Americans who he said depend on government).

Steve Pope / Getty Images

Sen. Marco Rubio speaks on Nov. 17 in Altoona, Iowa.

"Both parties tend to divide Americans into 'our voters' and 'their voters,'" Ryan said. "But Republicans must steer far clear of that trap. We must speak to the aspirations and anxieties of every American."

The post-election review has a much broader scope than ideology, though. Thursday’s meeting between the Romney and RNC digital teams was one of the first after-action confabs to rehash what worked and what didn’t during the election.

The Republicans concluded, according to an official who attended the meeting and asked to speak on background to offer more candid details, that the party is a better financial and digital positions than ever. The RNC will inherit a 500,000-strong donor file (90 percent of whom were unique to the Romney campaign) and 2.2 new active members of their email list from Romney.

But Republicans are also asking themselves how they might better leverage their digital operations to match the success of the Obama campaign. And the GOP is beginning to mull how it might better integrate its digital operations with other departments.

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But while the Republican transformation is wide-reaching, that shouldn’t minimize the role of ideology  -- or, more importantly, tone.

A number of politically savvy Republican leaders have also expressed frustration toward the party's tone. GOP Senate candidates Richard Mourdock and Todd Akin did little to help the party's standing with women after making comments about rape. And Romney's own rhetoric toward illegal immigrants -- speaking of how he favored the "self-deportation" -- contributed to Republicans' worse showing among Latino voters in recent electoral history.

"America is a nation of immigrants. Immigrants have helped build the country that we have become, and immigrants can help build a dynamic tomorrow," former President George W. Bush said in a rare public speech on Tuesday. "Not only do immigrants help build our economy, they invigorate our soul."

But as the party turns toward a second Obama term, there are several inflection points that will serve as a testing ground for Republicans. The gubernatorial races in Virginia and New Jersey could offer instructive lessons, along with a series of special elections that will inevitably appear.

“This is a process that will take four years, in the governorships and the off-year and midterm elections,” Carney said. “It will give people a chance to test those ideas and messages. Presidential candidates will adapt.”