JACKI LYDEN, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. Republican Party leaders gathered in Washington this week for their annual winter meeting. They approved new rules for the 2016 presidential primaries designed to create a more orderly path to the GOP nomination and, the party hopes, to the White House. But this week's meeting also provided an opportunity to see how far Republicans have come in an effort they began a year ago to reach out to new voters, especially young people and minorities and women. NPR national political correspondent Don Gonyea reports.
DON GONYEA, BYLINE: For yesterday's luncheon speech at the Republican National Committee meeting, the party turned to one of its newest, high-profile stars. First term U.S. Senator Tim Scott - a conservative African-American businessman - who embodies what officials say is a party that can expand its base. Scott was very much on-message.
SENATOR TIM SCOTT: We are going to have to embrace people the way they deserved to be embraced. And I will tell you as we embrace people in a new and fantastic way, we will encourage them to find the potential within themselves to maximize their potential. And when we win people, elections will take care of themselves.
GONYEA: But over the course of the three-day RNC meetings there were some mixed messages on reaching out to new voters. Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee delivered a big speech. He spoke about ending divisiveness in the party. Some call it a civil war between the Tea Party and establishment Republicans. But Huckabee also stirred controversy with this line about winning the votes of women.
MIKE HUCKABEE: And if the Democrats want to insult the women of America by making them believe that they are helpless without Uncle Sugar coming in and providing them with their prescription each month for birth control because they cannot control their libido or their reproductive system without the help of the government, then so be it. Let us take that discussion all across America.
GONYEA: It didn't exactly fit with the Republican Party's rebranding effort which began a year ago following the party's poor showing in the 2012 elections. RNC chairman Reince Priebus reacted cautiously to Huckabee.
REINCE PRIEBUS: I don't know what he was talking about. I can tell you that he was trying to make the comment that government can't be involved in every part of everyone's life.
GONYEA: Mostly, however, the GOP rebranding that was the talk of RNC meetings last year was in the background this year. Louisiana's Republican Party chairman, Roger Villere, said progress is being made, though he denied that Republicans have a problem with women voters or with minorities.
ROGER VILLERE: I think that the perception and what some of the Democrats want us to look like is, you know, that we have a problem with - we don't have a problem with minorities. Maybe we have a priority articulating our position. I think we have to show minorities how, you know, we feel like that they can do better being part of the Republican Party. We open with welcome arms.
GONYEA: Looking ahead to 2016, the party moved to ensure that the presidential primary season will be shorter, likely beginning that February and wrapping up as early as May. Chairman Priebus said the last primary cycle, which included a long season of many, many GOP debates, was damaging to the nominee and the party.
PRIEBUS: We don't want a six month slice-and-dice festival in our party. It's not good for picking a president and it's not good for our party.
GONYEA: There was also lots of chatter at this Republican gathering about one person they see as the likely Democratic nominee - Hillary Clinton. Though she was sometimes referred to as, quote, "she who must not be named." The line got laughs. But the party leadership wants the GOP as a whole to not get distracted by internal battles and to focus on what it takes to win. Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.