SAINT PAUL, Minn. — Despite her support for gay rights and being pro-choice — stances that most Republicans don’t take — Kayla Van Cleave considers herself one. She leans conservative on just about everything else, she says, but even then, the GOP establishment has hardly welcomed her with open arms.

But after spending a week here participating in the GOP Youth Convention, Van Cleave, a high school student from Tomah, Wisc., says she now recognizes what it’ll take to work her way into the Republican Party.

“I had a conversation with one of the adults here, and he was talking about how, you know, sometimes even if you don’t feel accepted by the traditional GOP you have to kick down the door,” she said. “You have to make yourself be accepted. And I am all for kicking down the door.”

If young Republicans take anything away from this week’s GOP Youth Convention, it will be the message that the only way to rebuild the struggling Republican Party is to open the party ranks from within — or else kick them down — to get a broader, more ideologically diverse party including people like Van Cleave.

Throughout the youth convention’s events, current and former politicians, political organizers and prominent conservative thinkers have bemoaned the rigid guidelines that have come to govern the Republican Party’s membership and, in turn, contribute to its fall from power.

“Quite frankly, if you look at the Republican Party today, at the state that we’re in, it’s largely become exclusionary,” said Dan Crowley, a McCain campaign organizer speaking at a Wednesday morning event themed “Building America’s Next Generation of Leaders.”

Before about 25 high school and college students from across the country, Crowley said the core principles of Republicanism — “limited government, individual liberty and individual responsibility” — are transcendent principles embraced by more than just the usual GOP stalwarts.

He said getting the GOP back on track will require expanding the party’s membership to include those who believe in the core principles but disagree on social issues like abortion.

“If we focus on building the party that way, and bringing in people perhaps from non-traditional constituencies of the Republican Party, that’s the way we’re going to win elections,” Crowley said.

As part of her bid for the California State Senate, Sashi McEntee, who spoke at the Wednesday event, is promoting this message of inclusion and tolerance.

For her, creating a more open Republican Party requires more than rhetoric; she said it takes dedicated grassroots organizing and individual conversations with potential Republicans to explain why they should support the new brand of inclusive Republicanism.

“We have to grow the numbers — not just look at winning the next election,” McEntee said. “And the little steps toward that are person-to-person reaching out, that grassroots activism.”

Many of those in attendance said there would be obstacles to reclaiming the GOP’s “big tent” identity.

Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), considered one of the GOP’s “young guns” and a speaker on Wednesday, said young people hoping for bottom-up reform would likely clash with the GOP’s “good ol’ boy” establishment.

But he noted that vice presidential hopeful Sarah Palin ran against the same establishment in Alaska as governor — and came out on top.

Several high school students who attended Wednesday’s youth convention event said they supported a more inclusive Republican Party, while others seemed reluctant to endorse policies protecting abortion and gay rights.

“It’s an obstacle for me,” said Nick Kowalski, a high school student from Waterford, Mich., dressed in a suit and tie. “I’m trying to get over it myself, and be more accepting, and bring them into the Party.”

At that moment, a group of young people who had stayed after the event to speak with one of the speakers, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA), streamed out of the auditorium. Kowalski watched them leave, adding, “But if these people are willing to jump on board and elect our candidates, well, then that’s great.”

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