Though he didn't lash out at the Tea Party or its disciples by name, Rove said ideological purity, especially on social issues, can't be the only thing defining good candidates.
"We've got a strategic issue," he said. "We have great principles, but we sometimes talk about those principles in a way that makes it sound like it's in 1968 or 1980 or 2000 -- and it's not. It's 2012 on its way to 2014."
He cited the example of Jack Kemp, the Republican from Western New York who in the 1980s was a champion of fiscally conservative issues like tax cuts while also being seen as a social moderate.
"We're going to have to have a little forbearance in listening to the ideas and suggestions of other people in our party about how we modernize ourselves and get ready for the next contests in the future," Rove said, "because we don't own all the answers right now. I don't want to snuff out the next Jack Kemp by saying well, don't worry, he's not a principled person."
Rove addressed the California GOP in Sacramento at a time when the party there is reeling, the Bay Area News Group said Sunday. The state party is $500,000 in debt and doesn't presently have offices for the handful of staff members it employs. Democrats there control 75 percent of both houses of the state Legislature, the governor's office and both Senate seats.
"Losing has one great benefit to it," Rove said. "It gives you the chance to start fresh to look everything anew and start rebuilding from the ground up in innovative and thoughtful ways that will expand our reach and expand our members."