Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) visits with addicts at the Outcry in the Barrio heroin clinic in San Antonio in January 2014. Pastor Jubal García is at left. (Outcry in the Barrio)

The last time Republicans began running for president, there was a race to be the most confrontational, the most unbending. Mitt Romney said he was “severely conservative” and got caught mocking the “47 percent.” Rick Perry called the Federal Reserve “treasonous.” Rick Santorum said he was “for income inequality.”

What a difference a disastrous election, two years and terrible polling make. If 2012 was a contest to be the toughest, the 2016 presidential Republican primary is likely to include a competition to appear the most compassionate.

The rebranding effort is taking center stage this week with pleas for more compassion from four potential GOP presidential candidates: Sens. Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Rand Paul (Ky.), House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (Wis.) and former Florida governor Jeb Bush. The Republicans are working to redefine the GOP as kinder, more connected to the daily economic anxieties of poor Americans — and better able to win national elections.

The challenge for refor mist Republicans is reconciling their new, softer tone with the harder line of party members still pushing for confrontation and radical policy changes.

Rubio, who has released a series of proposals to boost economic mobility, said this week that government needs to do more to help working parents afford child care and ensure “equal opportunity.” Bush wrote in an opinion article Thursday that there is “a need for compassion” in responding to the flow of migrant children at the border.

Robert L. Woodson ​Jr. has led Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) on a tour of community-based anti-poverty programs. Ryan released his plan to combat poverty this week. (Theresa Poulson/The Washington Post)

And Ryan — the 2012 GOP vice presidential candidate and the architect of proposals to cut the safety net — unveiled a battery of recommendations Thursday aimed at reducing poverty and increasing economic opportunity. The proposals, which focus on consolidating safety-net programs and overhauling criminal sentencing rules, would include no cuts to existing funding levels.

“I think conservatives have a lot to offer here, and we have ignored this space for too long,” Ryan said in an interview, insisting that politics are not on his mind. “I wanted to remove it from the old-fashioned budget fight. . . . I think it would be a needless distraction.”

The push continues Friday, when Paul speaks before the National Urban League on the need to improve education and change how the criminal justice system works, continuing a theme that he and Republicans such as Sen. Mike Lee (Utah) have been focusing on all year.

In the states, Republican governors John Kasich (Ohio) and Mike Pence (Indiana) — also potential 2016 candidates — have made moves to expand Medicaid, the health-care program for the poor, under the federal health-care law. And former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, who says he is considering another White House run, recently spent a day talking about the importance of rehabilitation with inmates at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola.

If some of this debate sounds familiar, it should: The modern Republican Party has gone through regular periods of soul-searching to reach beyond its pro-business, socially conservative base. George H.W. Bush promised “a kinder and gentler nation” before winning the White House in 1988; his son George W. Bush ran successfully as a “compassionate conservative” a dozen years later.

Developments this week suggest that at least some of the key contenders in the 2016 Republican presidential contest are weighing a similar message, with a particular focus on issues of poverty and economic mobility.

The party’s House and Senate leaders, however, haven’t embraced the new message, and the one who came closest to doing so — House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Va.) — lost his primary last month to a tea party candidate. The House GOP moved ahead this week with plans to sue President Obama, while Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and others are pushing for tough immigration measures in response to tens of thousands of Central American children being detained at the southern border.

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) on Thursday released his anti-poverty strategy at the American Enterprise Institute. (American Enterprise Institute)

“There will be Republicans who will say we should be cutting these programs and they’re too big, and Ryan’s not doing that,” said Ron Haskins, who worked on welfare issues for congressional Republicans and as an adviser to Bush. “It isn’t clear yet that the party will follow. It’s a huge risk.”

Liberals are deeply skeptical of the new GOP ideas, arguing that most are cynical attempts to soften the party’s brand without fundamentally changing its attitude toward helping the poor. They say ideas like consolidating programs for low-income Americans are only a prelude to cutting them.

“A lot of the reform ideas do not directly challenge that mainstream ideology in the conservative movement,” said Mike Konczal, a fellow at the liberal Roosevelt Institute. “A lot of this stuff is trying to put a kinder gloss on something radical like the Ryan plan,” the budget proposed this year that would cut trillions over the next decade.

Republicans, though, increasingly recognize that they need to attract more middle- and low-income voters. In 2012, among voters who said “cares about people like me” was the most important quality in a candidate, 81 percent sided with Obama over Romney.

“What happens in a natural cadence of an opposition party becoming a majority party is they stop fighting against an incumbent and stop fighting a person and the personification of all of his policies and they end up standing for something different,” said Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, a right-leaning think tank that has generated many of the new ideas. “The question is: Are we ready on the conservative side to move from complaining about the majority for tactical political advantage?”

The pivot has not come easily for Ryan, who was part of a national campaign that struggled to connect with lower-income voters and who made his name as a fierce budget-cutter.

“I have beat Paul over the head on that one,” said Robert Woodson, a conservative anti-poverty activist who has visited low-income aid organizations with Ryan. “Don’t talk about the cuts!”

Ryan’s latest proposals — announced at an American Enterprise Institute event Thursday — are an amalgam of ideas that have been proposed by other Republicans over the years. The leading proposal would streamline safety-net programs such as food stamps and housing vouchers into a single grant to states. It would begin as a pilot program for a few locations.

The idea is informed by Ryan’s travels with Woodson and a belief that states, localities and nonprofit and faith groups will have the best success at distributing aid.

“From looking at all the federal government does in this area, it’s very disjointed, and it’s very confusing,” Ryan said. “From looking at all the good work that people out in poor communities are doing to assist able-bodied people, it became clear to me that we need a more customized approach.”

Robert Rector, a poverty expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation, is one GOP skeptic. “What the states need is fiscal responsibility for welfare, not flexibility in the use of federal funds,” he said.

Other highlights of the Ryan plan include changes to education programs and expanding the earned-income tax credit for childless Americans — a proposal Obama has made as well. But while Obama would pay for it with higher taxes on finance professionals, Ryan would do it through cutting spending, particularly on energy subsidies.

Some of the more notable ideas involve the criminal justice system — giving judges more discretion in sentencing offenders for low-level, nonviolent crimes and providing more support for rehabilitation. The provisions reflect a shift for Ryan.

“I changed my mind on sentencing and prison reform and sentencing guidelines from these visits,” Ryan said, referring in particular to a recent trip to a faith-based drug-treatment program in San Antonio. “It just became clear to me that there are better ways for dealing with nonviolent criminals, to helping them get back on their feet, to pay their debt to society, and lead productive lives and be rehabilitated, than the current system we have today.”