Paul strongly opposes abortion, saying human life begins at conception and should be entitled to legal protection from then on. He muddied the waters in a recent CNN interview, however, saying "there are thousands of exceptions" that might make an abortion legal.
Paul also has struggled to explain changes to his once-firm stand against illegal immigration. In a major speech this month he set out a plan to let illegal immigrants remain in the U.S. and ultimately get a chance to become citizens, but he generally avoided direct references to citizenship.
Nearly equaling Paul in early presidential speculation is Rubio, 41, who is tasked with helping his party find better footing on immigration. Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants, is trying to craft a lengthy but feasible path to citizenship for the nation's millions of illegal immigrants. Rubio and Paul may end up with similar positions, although Paul wants more stringent requirements for certifying that the Mexican border is secure before moving ahead with other immigration changes.
Hispanics voted overwhelmingly for President Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. Some GOP strategists hope Rubio can reverse the trend.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who has called for immigration reform and whose wife is Mexican-American, also is in the presidential mix. It's not clear whether he and Rubio can advance simultaneously. Also, Bush's father and brother left the White House with low approval ratings.
Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the 2012 vice presidential nominee, is considering a presidential campaign that inevitably would draw scrutiny to his efforts to slash social spending without raising taxes on anyone, including the rich.
Warren G. Harding was the last Republican elected directly from the Senate or House to the presidency. As usual, several governors are weighing presidential bids. At least three — Chris Christie of New Jersey, Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Bob McDonnell of Virginia — might make a pragmatic, can-do argument, having governed toss-up or Democratic-leaning states.
But they already see the challenge of running in a party whose primaries are dominated by conservative activists.
Christie, who praised Obama's role in hurricane relief, was refused a speaking slot at CPAC. And conservative bloggers are hammering McDonnell for a Virginia transportation overhaul that includes new taxes.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal — a former Rhodes Scholar who urges Republicans to stop being "the stupid party" and obsessing over budgets — also might run for president.
Personalities aside, Republicans are bracing for an intense philosophical debate. Should they edge toward the political center to draw moderates and independents who helped elect Obama? And if so, how do they avoid antagonizing evangelicals, immigration hard-liners and other conservative stalwarts who comprise the party's base?
Schmidt notes that the base's loyalty didn't keep the party from losing the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections.
If Republicans recalibrate their message "based on talk radio hosts and extreme bloggers, it's like putting a magnet to your compass," Schmidt said. "The readings go haywire," and there's no way to pick up the extra voters the party needs, he said.
Schnur, the consultant-turned-academic, said Republicans realize they can't win presidential races without changing. "A much harder decision is not whether to do things differently," he said, "but how."
Follow Charles Babington on Twitter: https://twitter.com/cbabington
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