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THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM

Today's GOP is both united and divided

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By Jon Cohen and Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 30, 2009

The Republican rank and file is largely in sync with GOP lawmakers in their staunch opposition to efforts by President Obama and Democrats to enact major health-care legislation, but a new Washington Post poll also reveals deep dissatisfaction among GOP voters with the party's leadership as well as ideological and generational differences that may prove big obstacles to the party's plans for reclaiming power.

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Republicans and GOP-leaning independents are overwhelmingly negative about Obama and the Democratic Party more broadly, with nearly all dissatisfied with the administration's policies and almost half saying they are "angry" about them. About three-quarters have a more basic complaint, saying Obama does not stand for "traditional American values." More than eight in 10 say there is no chance they would support his reelection.

But for all the talk among Republican elected officials about a nascent comeback after gubernatorial victories in Virginia and New Jersey this month, there is also broad frustration among Republican voters about the party's direction, detachment from its congressional representatives and a schism over its priorities.

Fewer than half of the Republicans and Republican-leaners surveyed by The Washington Post see the party's leadership as taking the GOP in the "right direction," down sharply from this time four years ago. About four in 10 are dissatisfied with the policy proposals being offered by congressional Republicans, and similar numbers see the current crop of GOP legislators as out of touch with their problems and personal values. Nearly a third say the Republicans in Congress are not standing up for the party's core values.

This portrait of how Republicans see their party is part of an ongoing series of stories examining the GOP at the midpoint between its disastrous losses in the 2006 and 2008 elections, and the midterm elections in 2010 and the 2012 presidential contest. The findings are based on a national survey of 1,306 adults, including additional interviews with Republicans and Republican-leaning independents and a set of focus groups in Arapahoe County, Colo., a GOP-leaning county that Obama carried handily in 2008.

No clear leader

Asked who leads the Republican Party at this point, one group participant, Ryan Brown, a computer programmer, cited two men who are often at odds: Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the party's 2008 presidential nominee, and Rush Limbaugh, the conservative radio talk show host. But he was hesitant: "I'll bet you could go around here, and either people would not have an answer or they would have a different answer for that," he said. He was right, and the poll reveals similar threads of uncertainty.

Nearly three in 10 of those surveyed expressed no opinion about who in the GOP best reflects the party's principles or volunteered that no one does. Topping the list of named leaders was former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, the party's 2008 vice presidential nominee.

In the poll, taken amid the media whirlwind surrounding the release of her memoir "Going Rogue," more cite Palin than other Republicans as best reflecting the party's core values and as the top vote-getter in hypothetical presidential nomination contests. But on neither question did she exceed 20 percent backing among all Republicans.

Just 1 percent pick George W. Bush as the best reflection of the party's principles, and only a single person in the poll cites former vice president Richard B. Cheney. About seven in 10 say Bush bears at least "some" of the blame for the party's problems.

At the recent Republican Governors Association meetings in Austin, party officials discounted the absence of a single clear leader, arguing that what is most important is for Republicans to resist Obama's domestic agenda, reaffirm conservative principles and begin to articulate an alternative set of ideas. These officials expect to pick up seats in Congress and win more governorships in next year's elections, and think new, formidable leaders will emerge from those victories.

In the meantime, Republicans are faced with significant discord within their ranks. They are divided over how much to work with Obama on energy and climate-change legislation. There are generational differences on the role of religion in public life and how much emphasis the party should put on hot-button issues such as same-sex marriage. And the party's moderate and conservative wings have widely divergent views on a number of issues.

If there is one thing the party's strategists have in their favor at the outset of their push to regain majority status, it is broad public dissatisfaction with the way the country's political system is working -- the same force that helped propel Obama into office a year ago.


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