WASHINGTON Mitch McConnell, the top Republican in the U.S. Senate, warned his party on Thursday it must appeal to a broader spectrum of American voters if it hopes to recapture power in Washington.
As Republican insiders gathered to pick a chairman, the Kentucky senator cautioned that the party would cease to be competitive outside its Southern stronghold unless it reached out to black and Hispanic voters and other groups that have increasingly voted Democratic in recent years.
"Unless we do something to adapt, our status as a minority party may become too pronounced for an easy recovery," McConnell told members of the Republican National Committee.
"Every so often, there comes a time when a political party has to re-examine itself. For Republicans, now is such a time," McConnell said.
McConnell's comments came as his Senate Republicans consider whether to sign on to a massive economic stimulus bill that attracted no Republican votes when it passed the House of Representatives on Wednesday.
Republicans lost control of Congress in 2006 and saw their margins erode further in 2008, when they also lost the White House to Democrat Barack Obama.
Voters now consider themselves Democrats rather than Republicans by a record margin of 12 percentage points, according to a Gallup poll. Only five of the 50 U.S. states contain more self-identified Republicans than Democrats, Gallup found.
While unpopular former President George W. Bush may have hurt Republicans in recent elections, voters have not rejected Republican policies, McConnell said.
Rather, the party has failed to effectively communicate conservative ideas like limited government, school vouchers and increased domestic energy production, he said.
"America is diverse, the two major parties should be too," he said. "But this doesn't mean turning our backs on common-sense conservatism, and it certainly doesn't mean tailoring our positions to suit particular groups. Our principles are universal -- they apply to everyone."
Six candidates, including incumbent Mike Duncan, are campaigning to be elected chairman on Friday in the first competitive race since 1997. Duncan holds the most public endorsements from the 168 committee members, but handicappers say there is no clear favorite at this point.
Committee members concerned about the party's lack of racial diversity could elect one of two black candidates: former Maryland Lieutenant Governor Michael Steele and former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell.
(Editing by Patricia Zengerle and Peter Cooney)