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Republicans Time In The Wilderness

March 5, 2009

This is a powerful read, and I think reflective of the place the GOP now finds itself, and also shows the angst among those who thought the message they tried to sell would never lose its luster.

Four months after John McCain’s sweeping defeat, senior Republicans are coming to grips with the fact that the party is still – in stock market terms – looking for the bottom.

Republicans this week are processing two sobering new polls that found the party’s support reduced to a slim one-quarter of Americans. In the absence of a popular elected leader, its most visible figure is a polarizing radio host. Its strategic powerhouse is a still-divisive former House speaker forced from power 15 years ago.

And its hopes of demonstrating swift and visible change by pushing people of color to the fore have been dented by the stumbles of the party’s two most prominent non-white leaders, national Chairman Michael Steele and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.

So perhaps it’s no surprise that many prominent Republicans are forecasting a long winter.

“You think you hit bottom, and it can always go lower,” said Republican pollster Whit Ayres, who said his party’s best hope is that President Barack Obama overreaches. “The Republicans just entered the wilderness – we’re going to wander around there for a little while before coming back stronger than ever.

“I have no idea where the bottom is just like I have no idea where the bottom is on the stock market,” he said.

“It probably gets worse before it gets better, though I’m not sure how much worse it could get,” said Tom Rath, a New Hampshire Republican leader and former state attorney general. “The first chance at redemption is 18, 19 months away, and we’re going to have to gut it out here for a while.”

The gap in trust and popularity is mirrored, prominent Republicans fret, by a vast gap between the parties’ infrastructure. Republicans also fear that they are outmatched by a Democratic publicity and fundraising machine honed in opposition, and on display this week in a successful effort to associate the GOP with radio host Rush Limbaugh. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is trying to fashion a role as the intellectual driving force of the GOP-in-exile, but he hasn’t held office since the 1990s.

Add in a politically popular and groundbreaking Democratic president in Obama, and even the Republicans’ most practiced brawlers feel the party is flat-footed.

“It’s just a matter of enduring the early days of transformation – it’s never going to be pretty and it’s never going to be fun to watch it play out beyond a pure entertainment level,” Utah’s Jon Huntsman told POLITICO. “We haven’t had a healthy, rigorous discussion about our future in many years, and meanwhile the world has changed. Unless we want to be consigned to minority-party status for a lng time, we need to recognize these tectonic shifts happening under our feet.”

Richard Viguerie, the direct mail pioneer who helped create the modern conservative movement, was more scathing in a press release Wednesday.

“The ‘Rushification’ of the GOP is the natural and inevitable result of the fact that those who are supposed to provide leadership — Republican elected officials and party officers — are doing little to bring the party back,” he said. “Nature abhors a vacuum, and there is no vacuum in nature as empty as the leadership of the Republican Party today.”

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