Mr. Steele said that was just an example of how the party can retool its message to appeal to young voters and minorities without sacrificing core conservative principles. Mr. Steele said he used the argument weeks ago while chatting on a flight with a college student who described herself as fiscally conservative but socially liberal on issues such as gay marriage.
"Now all of a sudden I've got someone who wasn't a spouse before, that I had no responsibility for, who is now getting claimed as a spouse that I now have financial responsibility for," Mr. Steele told Republicans at the state convention in traditionally conservative Georgia. "So how do I pay for that? Who pays for that? You just cost me money."
Vermont and Iowa have legalized gay marriage in recent weeks, and a Quinnipiac University poll released earlier this month found that 57 percent of people questioned support civil unions that provide marriage-like rights. Although 55 percent said they opposed gay marriage, the poll indicated a shift toward more acceptance.
The chief of the Republican National Committee has been criticized by some social conservatives in recent weeks after GQ magazine quoted him as saying he opposed gay marriage but wasn't going to "beat people upside the head about it."
Mr. Steele, a Catholic and former Maryland lieutenant governor, was elected chairman of the committee earlier this year.
Mr. Steele received a rousing reception from the Georgia Republicans meeting in Savannah. Convention delegates gave him standing ovations twice before speeches at breakfast and later on the convention floor.
"I think he tries to call it like it is," said delegate David Dillinger, a 79-year-old retired Army officer from Thomson. "He says we got our butt kicked and need to get some glue to stick ourselves together. We need to change."
That change, Mr. Steele said, doesn't mean watering down Republicans' conservative principles to appeal to moderates.
Instead, he said the GOP's "credibility as a reliably conservative choice is in tatters" and needs fixing after voters nationwide "fired the Republican Party" in the past two election cycles.
"The first thing is we stop trying to remake, redo, rebrand, rebuild, re-anything. That's going backward," Mr. Steele said. "We don't have to remake anything. What are we going to remake, our values? To do so says they're not true."
Mr. Steele also acknowledged he can be "controversial at times." As GOP chairman, he's come under fire for calling comments by radio host Rush Limbaugh "ugly" and "incendiary," for saying some Republicans rejected 2008 presidential hopeful Mitt Romney because they "had issues with Mormonism," and for referring to abortion -- which Mr. Steele opposes -- as "an individual choice."
"I can give people angina, and sometimes within my own party," Mr. Steele said, drawing laughter from the crowd. "But I've always thought that to be a good thing, that we shake ourselves up ... to make sure that we're staying true to who we are."