GOP's problem: Message or messengers?

As multiple potential 2016 presidential candidates audition at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), many at the gathering are still dissecting what exactly went wrong for Republicans in the 2012 election.

One question at the core of the debate: Is what ails the GOP its message or its messengers?

Gov. Rick Perry, R-Texas, a candidate in 2012 who may run again in 2016, made clear in his speech yesterday he believes the problem is with the candidates - and specifically with the party's two previous presidential nominees, John McCain and Mitt Romney.

"The popular media narrative is that this country has shifted away from conservative ideals, as evidenced by the last two presidential elections," Perry told the conference just outside Washington."That might be true if Republicans had actually nominated conservatives in 2008 and 2012."

Many conference attendees echoed Perry's sentiment that the messengers were the issue. But they pointed to their tone, and not their ideology, as the main problem.

"I think if we can get messengers really speaking with conservative values but without the harsh rhetoric, without being inflammatory, but speaking in a moderate way and being inclusive, that will make a huge difference," said Leigh Tauber of Chevy Chase, Md. A self-described libertarian who attended CPAC with her son, she pointed to Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., as an example of a Republican who delivers his argument in a "reasoned, logical way." Paul addressed the conference yesterday to loud applause.

A trio of college Republicans from the University of Central Missouri also said they were looking for something different in their candidates.

"Are you familiar with Todd Akin?" student Cody Baughman succinctly put it, referring to the Missouri Senate candidate who sunk his campaign by making incendiary comments about rape.

Fellow student Kailea Bogan added that Republicans needed a more passionate advocate for conservative values at the top of the ticket.

"We didn't really have a lot of choices this last election as far as someone who could really be passionate about the American people and connect," she said. "It wasn't that Mitt Romney didn't believe in the American people or didn't associate, it's like he didn't know how to convey that passion for the American people. We need someone who can do that."

But there appeared to be a disconnect between these sentiments from the conservative rank-and-file and those of Republican insiders who say the party's problem runs deeper than just finding the next Ronald Reagan.

"It's the message, it's the messenger, and it's the tone," said pollster Whit Ayers shortly after participating on a panel about immigration reform. "Some people like to delude themselves to thinking the message has been just fine, we just need to communicate it better. If that's the case, you don't lost five of six popular votes in presidential elections."

Al Cardenas, president of the American Conservative Union, which sponsors CPAC, agreed and added that the GOP needs to acknowledge the changing demographics in the United States so it can avoid being "a white man's party."

Cardenas said that outreach begins with its candidates.

"If we keep recruiting some of the candidates we've been recruiting in the past, even if they are principled conservatives, we're going to keep losing election after election, as we have experienced in the past," he says.

Although 2016 may seem a long way off, there is a sense of urgency among conservatives to diagnose and fix the GOP's problems quickly. Pollster Ayres was optimistic that the party would change its fortunes in time for the next presidential contest, and pointed to Democrats after losing their third election in a row in 1988 as an example.

"It didn't take the Democrats long after 1988 to come up with a new messenger in 1992, did it?" Ayres said, referring to former President Bill Clinton. "It's not going to take Republicans any longer to do it either."

CPAC wraps up on Saturday with the announcement of the results of its presidential straw poll, perhaps the first votes cast in the 2016 race. The ballot this year features 23 names that are a mix of reruns from previous elections - 2008 Republican VP nominee Sarah Palin, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry - and rising stars - Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal. While rarely a predictor of who the Republican nominee will be, the poll could be an indication of what direction the conservative base wants to take the party - and if it's looking for a new message, or just a new messenger.

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    Caroline Horn is CBS News' senior producer for politics.