Since November, Republicans have blamed their presidential defeat on Mitt Romney's poor campaign, the technical wizardry of Barack Obama's operatives and a large turnout of minorities.

Rather than changing their message or priorities, they've talked of upgrading their technical abilities and better selling their conservative philosophy.

As Florida Sen. Marco Rubio told last weekend's Conservative Political Action Conference, "We don't need a new idea; the idea is America, and it still works."

Now, a leading party figure and a five-member panel have challenged that mentality by noting the GOP needs to refurbish its image with an eye toward our changing demographics, lest it be doomed in 2016 and beyond. Some conservatives promptly challenged both messages in what seems to be a struggle destined to play out between now and the 2016 campaign.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, in a thoughtful, substantive speech to CPAC's Ronald Reagan Dinner, said, "Way too many people believe Republicans are anti-immigrant, anti-woman, anti-science, anti-gay, anti-worker.

"Many voters are simply unwilling to choose our candidates because those voters feel unloved, unwanted and unwelcome in our party," he said. "This means that we must move beyond the divisive and extraneous issues that currently define the public debate."

Rather than negativism that rejects growing segments of the electorate, Bush said, "we need to be the party of inclusion and acceptance."

The conservative audience gave a tepid response to Bush's remarks, reserving more fervent reactions for the red meat remarks of Sarah Palin, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who won its presidential straw poll.

In a sense, Bush's speech was the appetizer to the main course: On Monday national GOP chairman Reince Priebus rolled out a massive task force report that analyzed November's defeats.

"Public perception of the party is at record lows," it said. "Young voters are increasingly rolling their eyes at what the party represents, and many minorities wrongly think that Republicans do not like them or want them in the country."

Bluntly, it added, "We have become expert in how to provide ideological reinforcement to like-minded people, but devastatingly we have lost the ability to be persuasive with, or welcoming to, those who do not agree with us on every issue."

The report urged Republicans to "be the champion of those who seek to climb the economic ladder of life" and take a stronger stand against "corporate malfeasance" and "corporate welfare."

And it said, "Our candidates need to do a better job talking in normal, people-oriented terms, and we need to go to communities where Republicans do not normally go to listen and make our case." While "we are not a policy committee," it added, "among the steps Republicans take in the Hispanic community and beyond, we must embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform."

The GOP report recognized the potential damage among Hispanic-Americans if Republicans block an immigration bill. But ultimately, the GOP must also moderate its message in other areas.

Additionally, the report proposed changing the nominating process by shortening the season and replacing caucuses with primaries. That won't be easy, since most changes require support of both parties and the states involved.

Some conservatives immediately saw the proposal as aimed at grassroots Republicans such as those who backed Texas Rep. Ron Paul in 2012 and who may support his son, Rand, in 2016.

Still, Bush and Priebus have given Republicans an initial guidepost toward developing a positive alternative to the conservatives' status-quo approach. But a GOP comeback will depend more on what key Republicans do in Congress, the 2014 mid-term race and the 2016 presidential campaign.

Carl P. Leubsdorf writes for the Dallas Morning News. Readers can mail him at