Clinton has acknowledged that Gary Hart began tugging the Democratic Party from its liberal and outdated moorings in 1984 and 1988, even if he eventually fell short of the nominations. And a 1992 candidacy by New York governor and liberal hero Mario Cuomo might have doomed Clinton's lean-to-the-center strategy.
Republicans "need a Gary Hart before they get a Bill Clinton," Schnur said. And they may have trouble narrowing the ideological field in the 2016 primary and beyond, which could force the eventual nominee to embrace hard-right principles that excite GOP activists but turn off independent voters.
A 97-page post-mortem, commissioned by the Republican Party after Romney's loss last fall, said the GOP "is increasingly marginalizing itself, and unless changes are made, it will be increasingly difficult for Republicans to win another presidential election in the near future."
The report emphasized messaging and outreach more than possible changes to policies and proposals. "The party should be proud of its conservative principles," the report said, but it also must be more "welcoming and inclusive" to young voters, minorities and women.
From — who founded the Democratic Leadership Council, a key proponent of Clinton's 1992 agenda — says Republicans are on the wrong track. They must be more open to adjusting their policies, he said, if they want to win presidential elections.
In the early 1990s, From said, "people didn't trust Democrats on the economy, national security, crime, welfare." By pushing welfare reductions, community policing and other new ideas, he said, "we tried to systematically eliminate the obstacles. Republicans have got to do the same thing."
Clinton's 1992 team believed "if you get the argument right, people will vote for us," From said. "Republicans don't have the argument right."
Clinton campaign aide Paul Begala said parties that win presidential elections are "always more mainstream and more unified. Right now, the Republicans are neither."
Begala said liberal activists made only modest complaints about Clinton's shift toward the political center because they were sick of losing elections with nominees such as George McGovern, Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis.
He said Republicans might need one more presidential loss to create a similar level of frustration, which can open the way to pragmatism and moderation. Nominating a tea party-leaning "true believer" such as Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas could do the trick, Begala said.
Holt, who has advised numerous GOP campaigns, said Republicans have already learned the lesson. "The most effective remedy for any party is an overdose of defeat," he said. "We've suffered that."
The Republicans' challenge is spelled out in exit polls from President Barack Obama's win over Romney. Nearly two-thirds of Republican voters labeled themselves as conservatives. But fewer than half of all Democratic voters called themselves liberals.
That indicates Democrats are working with a less ideological, more flexible base, giving a nominee leeway to embrace issues that might attract non-aligned voters in the general election.
Republicans, on the other hand, depend on a more ideological base. That's one reason party leaders — for now, anyway — talk less of modifying party policies and more of changing mechanics, technology and messaging.
"The brand has suffered," Holt said, "but the values have been very consistent."
Associated Press polling director Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report. Follow Charles Babington on Twitter: https://twitter.com/cbabington.
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