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Republicans Confront Formidable Task Ahead

Supporters of Sen. John McCain wait to hear from the Republican presidential candidate in Phoenix on election night.
Supporters of Sen. John McCain wait to hear from the Republican presidential candidate in Phoenix on election night. (By Toni L. Sandys -- The Washington Post)
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Republicans have been in the wilderness before, most notably after the blowout Democratic victories in 1964, the Watergate years of the mid-1970s and Bill Clinton's presidential victory in 1992. But in each of these cases, the Republicans came roaring back, the last time in just two years, when they rode opposition to Clinton's health-care plan to retake the House for the first time in more than 40 years.

More than a few conservative thinkers appear confident that Obama will overreach and provide what Richard D. Land of the Southern Baptist Convention calls a "target-rich" environment for Republicans. "A lot of it depends on what Obama does on Iraq," Land said. "If he tried to pull out precipitously, he is really taking a huge gamble. If that thing goes south, and we have to go back, he's a one-term president."

But one prominent conservative is not sure that Obama will choose such a path. Newt Gingrich, who led the Republicans back to power on Capitol Hill in 1994, said that if Obama names people such as former Federal Reserve chairman Paul A. Volcker and former secretary of state Colin Powell to serve in top positions, that would "imply a pretty centrist administration."

That would mean "he will govern for the center, and Republicans will have to cooperate with him for at least half the time," Gingrich said. But if Obama moves left, for instance granting labor unions more power, "the speed of disillusionment will be stunning," he said. "You will see the country having buyer's remorse by March or April, which will be like a pre-1994 environment."

Gingrich, who many Republicans believe is planning his own presidential bid in 2012, is one of the few party leaders to have spent considerable time trying to generate new ideas for the GOP, such as the need to compete more effectively with the rising economic power of China and India, overhauling the health-care system and repairing what he calls "dysfunctional" government bureaucracies in the states and in big agencies.

Another source of intellectual energy for the party will probably be younger House Republicans, who may try to oust either Boehner or Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.). Many of these younger leaders are pushing for fiscal discipline and more market-oriented solutions for issues such as health care and Social Security. "We need to clean out the anti-reform wing of the party," said Rep. Paul D. Ryan (Wis.), the ranking Republican on the House Budget Committee. "People are afraid to take political risks and that is by and large what has kept us back."

Gov. Pawlenty said the party's "core principles" do not need to be tossed aside, but he warned that the party must figure out how to address the bread-and-butter concerns of middle-income voters, such as paying for a college education. "The country is changing dramatically. It is changing demographically. It is changing culturally," Pawlenty said. "We need to find a way to connect our values and principles in the context of that changing environment."

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