By Steve Holland
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republicans reeling from their second presidential loss in a row engaged in some soul-searching on Wednesday but were at odds on how far the party must change to remake its image.
Divisions that were stitched up during the presidential campaign in a show of unity against the Democrats were on display again after Republican Mitt Romney's loss on Tuesday to President Barack Obama.
If there are five stages of grief, then Republicans had gone from denial to anger and depression. But the last phases, bargaining and acceptance, were apparently still elusive as Republicans bickered over whether a serious change of course is needed to appeal to a broader spectrum of American voters.
Romney's loss underscored a growing problem within the party in dealing with the changing face of the U.S. electorate as Hispanic voters, turned off by harsh conservative rhetoric on immigration, helped Obama win battleground states like Virginia, Colorado, Nevada and Ohio.
Romney also struggled during much of his campaign to appeal to women and young voters, as the party got tangled up in high-profile disputes over abortion and gay marriage that turned off people who might otherwise be attracted to the Republicans' free-market economic message.
Some party leaders got the message and called for a more inclusive party in the wake of the second consecutive Republican loss of the White House.
"We have to become a party of inclusion, not outreach," former House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich, who lost the Republican presidential nomination fight this year, told CBS' "This Morning" program. "We have to recognize that if you're not going to be competitive with Latinos, with African-Americans, with Native Americans, with Asian-Americans, you're not going to be a successful party."
But after seeing the rise of Tea Party fiscal conservatives over the past two years, many on the right felt that the problem was not that Romney was too moderate but that he was not conservative enough. That guarantees a battle over who the party will back in 2016 when it next chooses a candidate to pursue the White House.
"Mitt Romney's loss was the death rattle of the establishment GOP," said Richard Viguerie, chairman of ConservativeHQ.Com. "Far from signaling a rejection of the Tea Party or grassroots conservatives, the disaster of 2012 signals the beginning of the battle to take over the Republican Party and the opportunity to establish the GOP as the party of small-government constitutional conservatism."
Not only did Romney lose his bid for the White House, but Republican hopes of making gains in the Senate and perhaps even taking control of the chamber were dashed.
Two reasons for this setback were named Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock, who had both stood a good chance of winning Senate seats in Missouri and Indiana until they made comments about rape that angered women and turned the tide against them.
"The people of this country sent a clear message to our elected officials that we want a government that works to protect the interests of working-class citizens of every race, gender and sexual orientation," said Amy Kremer, chair of the Tea Party Express, a conservative group.
Still, many Republicans were loathe to cite any one reason for their setbacks.
"While some will want to blame one wing of the party over the other, the reality is candidates from all corners of our GOP lost," said Senator John Cornyn, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. "Clearly we have work to do in the weeks and months ahead."
Illegal immigration remains an Achilles heel for the Republican Party, with many conservatives in no mood to support any policy that might be seen as amnesty for an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants.
Romney, in his drive to secure the presidential nomination last spring, found himself tugged to the right to the point that he said that he supported the "self-deportation" of illegal immigrants.
It was a more hard-line position than that taken by conservatives Texas Governor Rick Perry or Gingrich, two presidential hopefuls who called for more moderate policies toward immigration.
During the presidential campaign, Romney tried to moderate his position on immigration, but the damage may have been done as his stance was an easy mark for Obama.
David Yepsen, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University, said Republicans need to get immigration off the table by reaching a comprehensive immigration deal with Obama during his second term.
"Clearly they have to do things differently and there's nothing like a political defeat and losses to focus the political mind," he said.
But some conservatives felt Romney was not a strong advocate for their views on social issues.
Marjorie Dannenfelser, a spokeswoman for the Susan B. Anthony List, a non-profit group that campaigns on conservative social issues, accused the Romney campaign of making a "strategic decision" to avoid bringing social issues, particular abortion, into the presidential debates, thereby failing to engage potential voters who feel strongly about those issues.
"We can only do so much," she said. "If Romney doesn't talk about Obama's extremes, it doesn't work."
(Editing By Alistair Bell and Philip Barbara)