LAS VEGAS — Top Republicans meeting for the first time since Election Day say the party failed to unseat President Barack Obama because nominee Mitt Romney did not respond to criticism strongly enough or outline a specific agenda with a broad appeal.

In conversations at the Republican Governors Association meeting in Las Vegas, a half dozen party leaders predicted the GOP will lose again if it keeps running the same playbook based on platitudes in place of detailed policies. Instead, these leaders asserted, the party needs to learn the lessons from its loss, respect voters' savvy and put forward an agenda that appeals beyond the white, male voters who are its base.

"We need to acknowledge the fact that we got beat," Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said in an interview. "We clearly got beat and we need to recognize that."

Little more than a week after Romney came up short in his presidential bid, the party elders were looking at his errors and peering ahead to 2016's race. Some of the contenders eying a White House run of their own were on hand and quietly considering their chances. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie scheduled a private meeting on the sidelines with Haley Barbour, the former Mississippi governor who is widely seen as one of the GOP's sharpest political operatives.

"We need to have a brutal, brutally honest assessment of everything we did," Barbour said. "We need to take everything apart ... and determine what we did that worked and what we did that didn't work."

Other potential White House contenders such as Jindal, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker were outlining a vision for the party in coming elections.

"We need to figure out what we did right and what we did wrong, how we can improve our tone, our message, our technology, our turnout – all the things that are required to win elections," McDonnell said. "We are disappointed, but we are not discouraged."

With polls in hand and shifting demographic trends in mind, these Republicans are looking at how best to position the party to make inroads with growing numbers of Hispanic, black and young voters who overwhelmingly voted Democratic last week. The Republicans were still smarting over constant criticism of Romney from Obama and Vice President Joe Biden – and what they saw as Romney's often ineffective response.

"They spent all their time making Mitt Romney unacceptable and making him out to be someone who was untrustworthy and unacceptable to enough of the American people – and it worked," Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad said in an interview.

In the hallways at the conference, the governors and their top advisers uniformly blamed Romney's loss on an uneven communications strategy. They said Romney allowed himself to be branded a corporate raider who put the interests of the wealthy above those of middle-income voters.

"We didn't have effective means by which to counter the attacks the Obama-Biden campaign took against Mitt Romney and his team," Walker said. "I just don't think you can let that go unanswered."

Time and again, the governors pointed to Obama attacks that settled into voters' minds.

"His whole campaign was a fear-and-smear attack to make Romney unacceptable and to blame George Bush for anything that happened while Obama was president," Barbour said. "This was all personal: that Romney is a vulture capitalist who doesn't care about people like you, ships jobs overseas, is a quintessential plutocrat and is married to a known equestrian."

Barbour added: "An attack unanswered is an attack admitted to."

Had the criticism been shown to be false or unfair, the results might have been better, said Bill Bennett, an education secretary in the Reagan administration and an informal adviser to governors.

"We were in a big fight. We came with a knife; they came with a gun," Bennett said. "If Mitt Romney had responded and had we responded on his behalf – and had his campaign pushed back more forcefully – I think it would have been a different result."

Jindal, however, attributed Romney's loss to a lack of "a specific vision that connected with the American people."

"His campaign was largely about his biography and his experience," Jindal said. "But time and time again, biography and experience is not enough to win an election. You have to have a vision, you have to connect your policies to the aspirations of the American people. I don't think the campaign did that and as a result, this became a contest between personalities and – you know what? – Chicago won that."

Romney cast his loss in a different light, at least in a phone call Wednesday with top donors. He asserted that Obama won re-election because of the "gifts" the president had already provided to blacks, Hispanics and young voters and because of the president's effort to paint Romney as anti-immigrant.

"The president's campaign, if you will, focused on giving targeted groups a big gift," Romney said, citing immigration proposals aimed at Hispanics and free contraception coverage that appealed to young women. "He made a big effort on small things."

White House press secretary Jay Carney disputed Romney's assessment, telling reporters traveling with Obama to New York City on Thursday that policies allowing more young people to go to college or stay on their parents' health plans are good for the country and the economy.

"I think that view of the American people or the electorate and the election is at odds with the truth of what happened last week," Carney said.

Romney said his campaign, in contrast, had been about "big issues for the whole country." He said he faced problems as a candidate because he was "getting beat up" by the Obama campaign. He said the debates allowed him to come back.

The Republican nominee didn't acknowledge any major missteps and said his team had run a superb campaign.

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  • 2012 -- Mitt Romney

    Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, speaks at the podium as he concedes the presidency on November 7, 2012 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Matthew Cavanaugh/Getty Images)

  • 2008 -- John McCain

    Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., gestures to his supporters, while his wife, Cindy looks on during his concession speech at the Arizona Biltmore in Phoenix, Tuesday, Nov. 4, 2008. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

  • 2004 -- John Kerry

    Former Democratic presidential candidate U.S. Senator John Kerry (D-MA) stands on stage with his wife Teresa Heinz Kerry after delivering his concession speech at Faneuil Hall on November 3, 2004 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

  • 2000 -- Al Gore

    Democratic presidental candidate Al Gore leaves the voting booth after casting his vote at Forks River Elementry School in Elmwood, Tennessee on November 7, 2000. (TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images)

  • 1996 -- Bob Dole

    Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole lowers his head while making his concession speech to supporters at a Washington hotel, on Tuesday, Nov. 5, 1996. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

  • 1992 -- George H.W. Bush

    U.S. President George Bush concedes the election on Nov. 3, 1992 after losing to President-elect Bill Clinton. (BOB DAEMMRICH/AFP/Getty Images)

  • 1992 -- Ross Perot

    U.S. independent presidential candidate Ross Perot delivers his concession speech on November 3, 1992 after Democrat Bill Clinton won the presidential election. (Photo credit should read PAUL RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)

  • 1988 -- Michael Dukakis

    Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis wipes his upper lip during the first presidential debate with his opponent U.S. Vice President George Bush in Winston-Salem, N.C. on Sept. 25, 1988. (AP Photo/Bob Jordan)

  • 1984 -- Walter Mondale

    Defeated presidential hopeful Walter Mondale addresses supporters at night, Tuesday, Nov. 7, 1984 at the St. Paul Civic center, conceding to President Reagan. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)

  • 1980 -- Jimmy Carter

    U.S. President Jimmy Carter concedes defeat in the presidential election as he addresses a group of Carter-Mondale supporters in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, Nov. 4, 1980. (AP Photo/Barry Thumma)

  • 1976 -- Gerald Ford

    President Gerald Ford speaks in the White House Press Room in Washington on November 3, 1976, conceding defeat to Jimmy Carter. (AP photo/ stf)

  • 1972 -- George McGovern

    Sen. George McGovern and his family in Sioux Falls, election night, Nov. 7, 1972 after he was defeated by Richard Nixon, and conceding the election. (AP Photo)

  • 1968 -- Hubert H. Humphrey

    Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey spaks at the Alfred E. Smith memorial dinner in Waldorf Astoria on Oct. 16, 1968 in New York. (AP Photo/John Lent)

  • 1964 -- Barry Goldwater

    A contact sheet of Republican senator Barry Morris Goldwater of Arizona concedes the 1964 presidential election to President Lyndon Johnson at a press conference held at his campaign headquarters at the Camelback Inn, Phoenix, Arizona, on November 4, 1964. (Photo by Washington Bureau/Getty Images)

  • 1960 -- Richard Nixon

    Vice President Nixon points to home-made sign at airport as he arrives in home state to cast his ballot on Nov. 8, 1960 in Ontario, California. (AP Photo)

  • 1956 -- Adlai Stevenson

    Sen. John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts talks with Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson on August 12, 1956 in Chicago. (AP Photo)

  • 1952 -- Adlai Stevenson

    Movie Actress Piper Laurie (left) is wearing a donkey head beauty spot on her cheek as she chats with Gov. Adlai Stevenson of Illinois, Democratic presidential nominee in Portland on Sept. 8, 1952. (AP Photo)

  • 1948 -- Thomas Dewey

    Dewey ran as the presidential candidate of the Republican Party in the elections of 1944 and 1948. (Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images)

  • 1944, 1948 -- Thomas Dewey

    Thomas Dewey (1902 - 1971) Governor of the State of New York broadcasting over the 'Crusade of Freedom' radio. Dewey was the presidential candidate of the Republican Party in the elections of 1944 and 1948. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

  • 1940 -- Wendell Wilkie

    Wendell Willkie, rehearses a report to the nation at a New York City radio station on Oct. 26, 1942. Willkie was President Roosevelt's personal representative, and his Republican opponent in the 1940 presidential elections. (AP Photo/Murray Becker)

  • 1936 -- Alf Landon

    Gov. Alf M. Landon, G.O.P. presidential nominee, voting in Independence, Kansas on Nov. 3, 1936. (AP Photo)

  • 1932 -- Herbert Hoover

    Herbert Hoover is shown leaving Madison Square Garden, Oct. 31, 1932 in New York City, after delivering his major campaign address before a crowd estimated at 22,000. (AP Photo)

  • 1928 -- Alfred E. Smith

    Governor Alfred E. Smith speaks in New York on Nov. 2, 1928. (AP Photo)

  • 1924 -- John W. Davis

    John W. Davis, Democratic nominee for President of the U.S., and his wife, are pictured on the estate of Charles Dana Gibson at Seven Hundred Acre Island in Dark Harbor, Maine on July 21, 1924. (AP Photo)

  • 1920 -- James M. Cox

    Democratic candidates for the presidency and vice-presidency of the United States, Governor James M Cox and Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882 - 1945) are seen at the head of a nomination parade in Dayton, Ohio on Nov. 1, 1920. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

  • 1916 -- Charles Evans Hughes

  • 1912 -- Theodore Roosevelt

    Theodore Roosevelt during the progressive campaign of 1912. (AP Photo)