WASHINGTON (AP) — The Republican Party that strode confidently into New York City to nominate President Bush for a second term in 2004 would hardly recognize the one that opens its national convention Sept. 1 in St. Paul.
Bush won re-election by defeating John Kerry, Republicans expanded their House and Senate majorities, and demoralized Democrats wondered aloud how many elections it would take to regain control of Congress. Republican leaders championed deep tax cuts, partial privatization of Social Security, and aggressive actions at home and abroad in the name of fighting terrorism.
Democrats seemed unsure what they stood for.
Now Republicans appear to have lost their identity, wondering when the bleeding will stop. After losing 30 House seats and control of both congressional chambers in 2006, they are anticipating even more House and Senate losses this fall. Most polls find GOP presidential candidate John McCain trailing Democrat Barack Obama, and far more enthusiasm among Democratic voters and donors than among Republicans.
“For the Republicans, it's going to get worse before it gets better,” said Richard Armey, a former GOP House majority leader from Texas. “I think they will take a pretty severe beating in this election,” said Armey, who helped engineer the 1994 “Republican Revolution” that gave the party control of the House after 40 years in the minority.
Of course, much of the hand-wringing will stop if McCain manages to beat Obama. Top Republicans see that as their best short-term hope, noting that polls show McCain running well ahead of “generic” matchups between unnamed Republicans and Democrats.
Even a McCain presidency, however, would not entirely heal the deep, systemic problems afflicting their party, leading Republicans say. In interviews, many of these Republicans said the party has lost its bearings. But they were nowhere near a consensus on what to do about it.
“I think the Republican Party is in the midst of a wrenching but important transition from the Reagan-Bush era into whatever comes next,” said Ralph Reed, a GOP strategist and former director of the Christian Coalition.
“Whatever comes next,” indeed, is a question that will hang over the Xcel Energy Center as Republicans meet for four days.
Even if solutions seem elusive, top Republicans find some unity on what has gone wrong. Most start with financial issues. Voters are well aware, they say, that the party that long touted itself as a champion of frugal budgets and limited government has presided over an explosion in federal spending and deficits.
“When it comes to the issue of fiscal responsibility, I'd be the first to admit that I think some of my colleagues lost their way,” said House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio. He said GOP lawmakers must resist attractive but costly proposals to solve many of society's problems, even if Democrats portray them as heartless.
“Getting our party to stand on principle is a critical part of what we have to do in order to earn our way back,” Boehner said after he and most other House Republicans opposed a massive housing rescue bill that Congress passed in July with heavy Democratic support. Boehner called it a bailout for agencies, lenders and borrowers who made foolish decisions.
Another well-regarded House Republican, David Dreier of California, agreed that voters have punished his party because they believe it has become profligate and undisciplined. But in a sign of the party's divisions and uncertainty, he joined Bush in supporting the housing bill that Boehner condemned.
“I hated it,” Dreier said. “It was bad, it was terrible.” But with the housing market in serious trouble and quasi-public agencies such as Fannie Mae teetering, he said, “trying to do something was better than doing nothing.”
Republicans are at a crossroads. The tough choices they face include balancing Dreier's form of political pragmatism against Boehner's appeal for dogged adherence to principles.
“The Republicans' difficulty is they have a small-government philosophy and they use the rhetoric of limited government, but when they become the majority party, it's very difficult to hold to that philosophy,” said Emory University political scientist Merle Black, who has written extensively on the party.
Republicans face philosophical dilemmas elsewhere, too. For years, social conservatives provided a bulwark of votes and energy, driving the party's opposition to abortion, gay marriage and flag desecration. But many moderate voters felt the party went too far, especially when GOP leaders tried to prevent the husband of Terri Schiavo, a Florida woman in a persistent vegetative state, from allowing her to die in 2005.
Social conservatives are still important to the GOP, but “those coalitions don't deliver majorities any more,” said Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., a respected political strategist. “They have been too intolerant of other groups.”
For now, the Republican Party seems torn from familiar moorings of fiscal prudence, social conservatism and sure-footed national security policies. Few think the journey back to prosperity will be easy.
“The Republican Party is going to undergo a fairly extended fight for its new identity,” said GOP pollster Whit Ayres. “There are going to be contentions between the social conservatives and the libertarian wings of the party. And between the fiscal conservative and economic growth wings of the party.”
On the question of tax cuts, Ayres said, look for a renewal of “the old supply-side versus demand-side fight.”
And then there are international issues. Bush's decision to invade Iraq, triggering thousands of casualties and based on unfounded claims of massive Iraqi weapons, probably did more than anything to give Democrats control of the House and Senate in 2006.
Two years later, however, the war has become much more enigmatic and politically puzzling. Some Republicans agree with McCain that a clear U.S. victory is essential, even if it takes several more years. Others want to bring troops home more promptly, saying it's time for Iraqis to police themselves.
And many simply don't know what to make of Iraq as a political issue. In interviews with an array of prominent Republicans, almost none brought up the war without prompting, and few seemed fully confident that one course of action is wiser than another.
Whether the cause is uncertainty about Iraq, frustration over Bush's collapsed approval ratings, or a blend of hubris and fatigue that overtakes parties in power, Republicans seem largely devoid of Ronald Reagan's optimism or the crackling enthusiasm and ideas that powered the 1994 congressional breakthrough.
Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a top McCain supporter, told a Washington-area conservative group that the Republican idea factory has been “a little stagnant in recent years.” Others are less gloomy. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said he thinks the 2006 elections “and the first six months of 2007 may turn out, in retrospect, to be the bottoming-out point of the Republican Party as an institution. The 2006 elections were a tremendous wake-up call.”
The GOP must position itself, he said, as “a broadly center-right party that achieves the goals of the American people” in a time of soaring costs for energy, health care and other needs.
“You're starting to see specific ideas and examples'' from Republican officials, Gingrich said. He cited, for example, Virginia Rep. Randy Forbes' call for government cash awards to those who find new ways to increase auto fuel efficiency, tap new energy sources and achieve other breakthroughs.
Even if those ideas catch fire, Republican insiders say, the party also must confront its ethics problems, which are threatening key congressional seats for a second straight election. Several scandals, including those involving the now-imprisoned lobbyist Jack Abramoff and a Florida congressman who exchanged sexually charged e-mails with teenage pages, cost the partly dearly in 2006. Now it faces more embarrassments.
Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens, already confronting a tough re-election, awaits trial on seven counts of failing to disclose that a prominent company helped renovate his home. Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, is retiring after pleading guilty to disorderly conduct in an airport men's room sex sting.
Rep. Rick Renzi, R-Ariz., is retiring after being indicted on charges of extortion, wire fraud and money laundering. And Rep. John Doolittle, R-Calif., is stepping down amid an investigation into alleged influence-peddling.
The convention-goers in St. Paul will chant, cheer and make the best of it for four days, embracing a 72-year-old nominee who calls himself an underdog but has a shot at an upset.
In subsequent weeks, and in quieter settings, party leaders will ponder their challenges and their options, all of which have supporters and detractors. More tax cuts? Tighter budgets even if it means cutting popular programs? More government involvement in health care, education and energy? Greater interaction with other nations?
“There's a lot of people kind of groping in the semidarkness,” said Reed, the former Christian Coalition director who himself was tarred in the Abramoff scandal, “trying to figure out what a post-Reagan, post-Bush Republican Party looks like.”
Photo: U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C.