By John Whitesides
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A year after Republican leaders vowed to "rebrand" their party to broaden its appeal in light of a dispiriting election loss to Democratic President Barack Obama, the Republican strategy for 2014 is looking a lot like the one from 2012.
At the Republican National Committee's winter meeting this week in Washington, it was clear the panic that hit the party after the 2012 elections has subsided, although polls indicate that efforts to make the party more attractive to single women, minorities and gays, groups that favor Democrats by big numbers, have not made any headway.
Many Republicans remain concerned about the party's long-term prospects in the face of such problems, but they have been heartened by the troubled launch of Obama's healthcare overhaul and by polls that suggest Obama's Democrats are not much more popular than Republicans.
So in many ways, this week's meeting of Republican officials has been an affirmation of the party's reluctance to change its core strategies for the 2014 midterm elections: Opposition to abortion and an assault on Obamacare, as the president's healthcare overhaul is known.
It is a familiar platform that analysts say represents the influence of the most conservative elements of a party that continues to be plagued by bitter infighting between compromise-resistant Tea Party conservatives and more pragmatic "establishment" Republicans.
The focus on abortion and Obamacare, analysts say, also could undermine Republican efforts to lure women and minority voters who strongly support abortion rights and Obama's efforts to help millions of uninsured Americans get health coverage.
"There hasn't been any significant rebranding for Republicans. When the goals of rebranding have been largely ignored by major figures in the party, you have to be a little skeptical," said political analyst Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute.
On Capitol Hill, a sweeping immigration overhaul that some Republican officials hoped would help the party gain ground with the nation's rapidly growing Hispanic community, which overwhelmingly backed Obama in 2012, has been blocked by conservative Republicans in the House of Representatives who are wary of giving millions of undocumented immigrants a path to U.S. citizenship.
Republican officials say they do not believe their stances on issues such as immigration and abortion have harmed the party, but that some Republican candidates' inability to clearly and sensitively express their views on such subjects has hurt.
"We don't need to move away from our core values. We need to more clearly communicate those values," said Kris Warner, an RNC member from West Virginia.
A NEW CONTROVERSY
Republican efforts to attract women voters also continue to be complicated by indelicate rhetoric.
During a speech before the RNC on Thursday, former Arkansas governor and presidential candidate Mike Huckabee called on Republicans to aggressively argue to women voters that they are not "weaklings" who need to rely on the government for help.
In doing so, he served up the latest sound bite for Democrats who accuse Republicans of waging a "war on women."
Arguing against government-funded birth control, Huckabee accused Democrats of telling women that, "they are helpless without Uncle Sugar coming in and providing them for them a prescription each month for birth control because they cannot control their libido."
Leading Democrats quickly pounced. They said Huckabee's comments reminded them of the 2012 campaign, when insensitive remarks about rape by two Republicans running for the U.S. Senate fueled Democrats' claims that the Republican Party was an out-of-touch bastion of older white males.
"Mike Huckabee has no idea what he's talking about," Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz said. "If this is the (Republican) rebrand a year later, then all they've gotten is a year older."
Huckabee's comments followed a recent controversy over a memoir by Republican Representative Steve Pearce of New Mexico, who wrote that a wife should "voluntarily submit" to her husband, although that does not make her inferior.
Steve Munisteri, the state Republican chairman in Texas, said Republican candidates still need to watch the way they talk about controversial issues.
"The party still has a problem with people who don't understand that how you say things can turn people off. Your tone matters. We have a multi-cultural society, and people have to believe you want them in your party," he said.
The Republican House and Senate campaign committees have organized sessions with candidates and staff to teach them how to address controversial topics and avoid such self-inflicted wounds, officials said.
At the same time, the party is signaling it will be more aggressive in pressing for abortion restrictions, even though surveys have long shown that a majority of Americans support abortion rights.
On Wednesday, the party sent two bus loads of RNC members to attend the anti-abortion "March for Life" on the National Mall in Washington. RNC spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski said the party needed to "get back on offense" in fighting abortion.
'GOOD THINGS HAPPENING'
So far, the Republican effort to reach out to women, minorities and other Democratic voting blocs has involved adjusting tactics more than changing the party's platform.
The RNC has added more than 175 staff members to organize at the state level and reach out to black, Asian and Hispanic voters, party officials say.
The party also has hired technology specialists and opened an office in California's Silicon Valley to counter the Democrats' data-driven voter turnout operation.
Still, polls indicate that more than half of Americans view the Republican Party unfavorably, a trend that does not bode well for a party that has lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections.
The RNC is expected to adopt rules changes to shorten its presidential primary season in 2016 and move the party's nominating convention from late August to June or July.
Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada would retain their right to kick off the process in February 2016, and the rest of the contests would be held between March and May.
The changes could make it more difficult for surprise contenders to emerge, but would help limit a combative presidential primary process that many Republicans blame for weakening party nominee Mitt Romney in 2012.
"We feel like there are some good things happening now," said Shawn Steel, an RNC member from California. "We are going into communities that have never heard the Republican message, and we're finding good candidates."
(Editing by David Lindsey and Andre Grenon)