Health-Care Battle Helps GOP Climb Out of Morass, but Challenges Are Plentiful

Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty
Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (Chris Kleponis - Bloomberg News)
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By Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 23, 2009

When Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.) left the Republican Party in April to become a Democrat, the situation for the Grand Old Party was so dismal that even one of Washington's most vocal Republican bashers, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), declared that "our country needs a strong, diverse Republican Party."

But after looking as if they would drift into irrelevance, Republicans are showing signs of being energized. The party's grass-roots activists, at times moribund during last year's presidential campaign, have mobilized against President Obama's agenda, vastly outnumbering Democrats at some of this month's health-care town hall meetings.

After badly trailing the campaign of then-Sen. Barack Obama in raising money last year, the Republican National Committee has raised more than the Democratic National Committee this year, figures released last week show. Ahead of next year's elections, several potentially strong GOP candidates, including popular Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, have decided to run for seats in the Senate. In this year's gubernatorial races, polls show the GOP candidates ahead in both New Jersey and Virginia.

What has emerged in the last few months is a more confident GOP. Republicans, who earlier this year thought they could not block a Democratic health-care reform bill and should focus on simply stopping one of its more liberal components -- a government-run insurance option -- have set their sights on forcing the president to dramatically scale back his proposal.

Still, even leading Republicans offer their positive views with caveats, a recognition that the party badly lost the last two elections and this year found two of its potential 2012 presidential hopefuls, Sen. John Ensign (Nev.) and Gov. Mark Sanford (S.C.), embroiled in sex scandals.

"Republicans are digging out of a pretty big hole and we're not yet back to parity, but it's headed in the right direction," said Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a leading figure in the party who is considering a 2012 presidential run. "The mood of the grass roots has gone from one of discouragement and confusion in some cases after the last election cycle to one of concern about the direction of Obama to one of hope and optimism for a Republican comeback."

In an interview, RNC Chairman Michael S. Steele said, "We have a lot more to do," but added that "we've stopped the hemorrhaging away from the party where our activists and candidates were saying, 'I don't know if I want to play.' "

Democrats are dismissive of any GOP gains.

"The president remains strong [in public approval] and people have more confidence in congressional Democrats" than Republicans, said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "People have more questions about the health-care plan, but that has not translated into support for the Republicans."

Democrats cast the GOP as simply eager to block things.

"I think early on a decision was made by the Republican leadership that said, 'Look, let's not give him a victory. Maybe we can have a replay of 1993-94 when Clinton came in, he failed on health care and then we won in the midterm elections and we got the majority,' " Obama said on Thursday. "And I think there are some folks that are taking a page out of that playbook."

Strategists in both parties caution that increasing anxiety about Obama's agenda has not translated into enthusiasm for Republicans. A Washington Post-ABC News poll released last week found only 49 percent of Americans express confidence that Obama will make the right decisions for the country, down from 60 percent at the 100-day mark of his presidency. But only 21 percent think congressional Republicans will make the right decisions, a number that has dropped eight points since January.

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