WASHINGTON — Republicans, out of power and divided over how to get it back, are finding even the most basic questions hard to answer.
Here's one: Who speaks for the GOP?
The question flummoxes most Americans, a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll finds, which is among the reasons for the party's sagging state and uncertain direction.
A 52% majority of those surveyed couldn't come up with a name when asked to specify "the main person" who speaks for Republicans today. Of those who could, the top response was radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh (13%), followed in order by former vice president Dick Cheney, Arizona Sen. John McCain and former House speaker Newt Gingrich. Former president George W. Bush ranked fifth, at 3%.
So the dominant faces of the Republican Party are all men, all white, all conservative and all old enough to join AARP, ranging in age from 58 (Limbaugh) to 72 (McCain). They include some of the country's most strident voices on issues from Sonia Sotomayor's nomination to the Supreme Court to President Obama's policies at home and abroad. Two are retired from politics, and one has never been a candidate.
Only McCain holds elective office, and his age and status as the loser of last year's presidential election make him an unlikely standard bearer for the party's future.
"It's a problem," says Douglas Holtz-Eakin, an adviser to McCain's 2008 presidential campaign who this month is filing the papers to create a think tank aimed at generating new ideas for conservatives. "We need the perceived leadership of the party to be those who are the future."
"We cannot be a party of balding white guys," says former Republican Party national chairman Ed Gillespie, a White House counselor for George W. Bush. "We have to have a broader appeal, but there's time for us to make that change."
Republicans have seen an erosion of support across almost all demographic groups — the steepest decline since World War II, even bigger than in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal in the 1970s. Since 2004, Republicans have gone from a 3 percentage point advantage in party identification over Democrats in USA TODAY polls to a 7 point disadvantage.
In that time, the GOP has lost control of the White House, the House of Representatives and the Senate. It is struggling to forge a united response to the popular new Democratic president. The result has been to give Obama "an extension" to his political honeymoon, Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg says.
No surprise, then, that a debate rages over what to do next.
The annual Congressional Republican fundraising dinner Monday prompted weeks of political drama over who would deliver the keynote address. Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin's name was announced, but when questions arose over her schedule Gingrich was tapped. Then a last-minute kerfuffle developed over whether Palin, McCain's running mate, would attend after all.
In the end, she showed up at the Washington Convention Center, walked across the stage and waved but didn't speak. He delivered an hour-long, policy-laden address that castigated Obama for having "already failed" on the economy and called for a "majority Republican Party" that would tolerate disparate views.
In recent days, the party's divisions over Sotomayor have played out in public.
At one end of the spectrum, Limbaugh labeled the appellate judge a racist and Gingrich said she should be forced to withdraw, although he later backed away from his harshest words. At the other, Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, praised the nominee's judicial philosophy and defended Sotomayor's temperament after meeting with her last week.
"We're undergoing, obviously, an identity problem, both in terms of the issues and what we represent as Republicans, what the Republican brand is all about," Snowe says. One of the few moderate Republicans left in the Senate — their ranks shrank when Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania switched to the Democrats — she worries her party has "lost its way."
Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele, who declined to be interviewed about the GOP's future, has been caught in the crossfire between Limbaugh and others. (In the USA TODAY/Gallup Poll, only 1% said Steele spoke for the GOP.)
USA TODAY asked whether Republicans, to succeed, should either do a better job arguing for conservative views or change positions on some issues to appeal to moderates — an ongoing debate within the party. Cheney sparked headlines last month when he said on CBS' Face the Nation that he would rather have a GOP defined by the conservative Limbaugh than the moderate former secretary of State, Colin Powell.
A majority of those surveyed said the party should make changes to draw moderates. Among Republicans, however, nearly two-thirds said the party would be better off by holding a conservative line and advocating it more effectively — as Limbaugh advocates.
"They're disorganized, they don't have a leader, and they're trying to be too moderate," Kim Lowe, 43, of Charlotte, says. The conservative stay-at-home mom and interior designer, who was among those surveyed, predicts that a message of fiscal responsibility ultimately will prevail with voters.
"I believe they'll come back once America sees what Obama is doing," she says.
'Politics is self-correcting'
Political fortunes are cyclical, of course. Republicans were crushed in Lyndon Johnson's 1964 landslide but regained the White House four years later amid turmoil over civil rights and the Vietnam War. In the 1980s, Democratic liberals and centrists faced off, sometimes bitterly, over welfare, crime and other issues until Bill Clinton won the presidency in 1992.
"When you have a party out of power, especially after you've lost an election, it's not surprising there would be many voices competing to speak," says Frank Donatelli, who was political director in the Reagan White House and helped run the Republican National Committee for the McCain campaign last year.
Republican opportunities will come in response to Democratic excesses, Donatelli says: "Politics is self-correcting."
In time, the GOP will be defined and led by its presidential nominee, he says. Several prospects are laying the groundwork for potential runs in 2012.
Last week, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty announced he wouldn't seek a third term, stoking speculation that he is interested in the White House. Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and Gingrich have been making appearances in key primary states.
Republican candidates also are competitive in this year's two gubernatorial races, in New Jersey and Virginia, for seats now held by Democrats. Winning either would help Republicans argue they are making a comeback.
Still, some see the GOP's immediate plight as perilous.
"We're in the basement of a 100-story building," says Ed Rollins, a Republican strategist who advised the presidential campaigns of Ronald Reagan in 1984, independent Ross Perot in 1992 and Huckabee in 2008.
Rollins says next year's congressional and state legislative elections are crucial. If Republicans don't make significant gains in the House, he says, the redrawing of congressional district lines after the 2010 Census could lock in Democratic advantages for a decade.
Then there are the demographics of the GOP's decline.
From Bush's inauguration in 2001 to Obama's inauguration in 2009, Republicans lost significant support among nearly every major demographic group, according to a Gallup analysis — among men and women, Americans at all income levels, residents of every region and those ages 18-64.
The losses were particularly steep among those under 30, the rising Millennial generation. Support for the GOP among college graduates fell by about 10 percentage points. Surveys of voters as they left polling places also showed a significant decline among Hispanics, the nation's fastest-growing ethnic group.
Republicans maintained support among seniors, conservatives and frequent churchgoers.
To win elections, Gillespie says, the party needs to make more inroads among the rapidly expanding parts of the population. "I was not a math major, but I know that getting an increasing share of a decreasing percentage of the overall vote is not a good thing," he says. "That's what we're doing now."
"The world has changed, and they cannot be staying in the same place where they've been for the last 200 years," says Erika Quinteros, 63, an independent from suburban Philadelphia who was called in the survey. The retired doctor sometimes votes for Republicans — she liked former Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge— but says the current GOP seems "too radical" for her.
In the poll, 34% had a favorable impression of the Republican Party, matching the lowest level in more than a decade. In comparison, 53% had a favorable impression of the Democratic Party.
Dissatisfaction with the GOP extends to within its own ranks. Among Republicans, 33% had an unfavorable impression of their own party. In contrast, 4% of Democrats had an unfavorable impression of their party.
The GOP's electoral setbacks, policy divisions and image problems make it harder for the party to influence the national debate.
"It's as if the Republican Party is in a time-out chair," says Charlie Cook, editor and publisher of the non-partisan Cook Political Report. "Nobody's really listening to them. Nobody's caring what they think. The question is when they're asked to rejoin the class, are they going to have something new or different to say?"
"I don't think people know what they stand for," says Troy Collett, 39, a Republican from Shelbyville, Ind., who was surveyed. In the 2008 election, he says, "all they knew was there was a war in Iraq that most people disagreed with, and spending was out of control, and gas prices were high."
A GOP 'wilderness'
Asked by Gallup "what comes to mind when you think of the Republican Party," 25% said "unfavorable" and another 1 in 4 offered negative assessments including "no direction," "close-minded" and "poor economic conditions." Sixteen percent said "conservative" and 7% "favorable."
For the Democratic Party, the most dominant impression was "liberal," mentioned by 15%. One in 3 used positive phrases such as "for the people" and "socially conscious." The most prevalent negative judgments saw the Democrats as "big spending" (8%) and "self-centered" (4%).
The survey of 1,015 adults, taken by land line and cellphone May 29-31, has a margin of error of +/– 3 percentage points.
Like the Democrats or not, there was a broad consensus about who speaks for the party. Obama was named by 58%. He was followed by 11% who cited House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and 3% who cited Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Twenty-one percent couldn't come up with a name.
And Obama's popularity — 67% had a favorable opinion of him — is boosting his party. Even the 14-year-old daughter of Rollins, the Republican strategist, has put up posters of the president in her bedroom.
Some analysts say a stumble by the president and the Democrat-controlled Congress would give Republicans their best opportunity to recover.
"Republicans are counting on the Obama administration to disintegrate, to disappoint, very rapidly and very spectacularly, and a big popular movement of unhappiness with the administration to coalesce," says David Frum, a speechwriter in the Bush White House.
Frum, who says the party hasn't yet come to terms with its problems, has launched a website called newmajority.com to encourage a debate.
"There's a lot of time and nothing wrong with the Republican Party that health care reform or the cap-and-trade (energy plan) or something like that blowing up wouldn't help fix," Cook says.
At the moment, though, "Republicans are going through a wilderness period, and it may take a while to come out of it."
SUSAN PAGE - USA Today.