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The battles inside the GOP

By Dan Balz
Saturday, August 28, 2010; 1:54 PM

It has long been said that any political coalition large enough to aspire to majority status is an organization of factions, conflict and contradictions. That description defines the Republican Party today as it looks toward the November elections and beyond.

This was a week in which the party's strengths and weaknesses competed for attention. Turnout in Tuesday's primaries showed Republicans energized and enthusiastic, far more so than the Democrats. If anything, Democrats are more pessimistic today about their prospects in November than they were two months ago.

But the elections last week in Florida and Alaska also pointed to ideological differences and personal enmities that have played out in Republican primary battles all year and that threaten to leave scars and fissures within the party that will have to be dealt with later. Republicans have seen more turmoil in their ranks this year than Democrats, a sign of both robustness within the coalition and unresolved debates about the party's direction.

On another front, House Republican leader John Boehner (Ohio) went to his home state and made his first attempt at offering a GOP agenda for the fall campaigns, an essential - and until now largely missing - element of the party's message.

But Boehner's speech left many questions unanswered about what his party would do if Republicans win a majority of seats in November. How radically would they attack government spending? How bold would they be in dealing with entitlements, beyond the grown-up conversation that Boehner promises? How much effort would they make to work with President Obama compared with the past two years?

The party's agenda is not the only question mark hanging over Republicans. The party's leadership remains in question. Who now truly drives the party: the establishment or the grass roots? There is considerable evidence that power has shifted to the activists and that the Washington establishment is still scrambling to catch up.

Boehner spoke as a leader of the party's establishment wing. On Saturday, the non-establishment wing weighed in when "tea party" and grass-roots conservative activists turned out in force in Washington for Glenn Beck's "Restoring Honor" rally at the Lincoln Memorial.

Beck's gathering was a non-political rally with strong political overtones, as the choice of Sarah Palin as the featured speaker testified. If Boehner and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) embody the party's establishment leadership, Palin is now the de facto leader of the non-establishment wing, and she is wreaking havoc within her party.

Palin's speech Saturday was heavy on patriotism and tributes to military heroes, but it contained one clear dig at the president when she said that what the country needs is restoring, not transforming. But her presence in the capital was more than a challenge to the Democrats; it also was a reminder to her party's congressional leadership that she and her grass-roots followers will be watching them closely and holding them to account.

Palin is happy to flex her muscles in unconventional ways designed to roil the party establishment, as she did in Alaska by backing little-known lawyer Joe Miller in his primary challenge to Sen. Lisa Murkowski. Miller, in a shock to the establishment, now leads the tally by about 1,700 votes. With absentee ballots yet to be counted, Palin's candidate holds the upper hand, although Murkowski is not going quietly.

Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) represents another challenge to the establishment and is a rising hero to conservative activists. He has sided with a number of successful upstarts and long shots in Senate primaries, taking the opposite side against McConnell or Sen. John Cornyn (Tex.), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

To whom will those senators owe their greatest allegiance if they win in November? Ken Buck, who beat an establishment candidate to win the Colorado Senate primary, made clear before his victory that DeMint was his role model.

The ideological gulf opening up as a result of the primaries is sizable. Republican primary voters have nominated a string of deeply conservative Senate candidates, led by tea party favorite Sharron Angle in Nevada and libertarian Rand Paul in Kentucky.

The conservatism of some of the GOP's Senate candidates now bears some resemblance to that of the group swept into office in the Reagan landslide of 1980 - senators such as Paula Hawkins of Florida and Jeremiah Denton of Alabama. They lasted only one term, swept out in 1986 when Democrats took back the Senate.

Ironically, Republican moderates, the most endangered species in the party, may see their thin ranks in the Senate enhanced in November as well. The most likely addition is Delaware's Michael Castle, the long-serving congressman and former governor who is one of the party's most articulate moderates.

In Illinois, Rep. Mark Kirk has tacked right in his Senate bid. But in his representation of Chicago's North Shore congressional district, he has fit comfortably in the moderates' camp. If he prevails in his very tough and negative battle against Democratic state Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, he could join with other moderate Republicans in the Senate.

Republicans also face divisions about how they will approach Obama and the Democrats. Confrontation and obstruction have worked politically to help put the Republicans in a position to gain ground in November. Come January, the question will be how much they try to cooperate with the White House.

Many of the newcomers who have run campaigns in stark opposition to all things Obama, will be ready for more confrontation as a prelude to the 2012 elections. But others say they will go to Washington determined to look across the aisle.

Ohio's Rob Portman, the party's Senate nominee and a former House member and Bush administration official, is one who campaigns explicitly on that pledge and says he is absolutely committed to trying to follow through if he wins his election against Democrat Lee Fisher.

These contradictions are in many ways normal. Democrats have their own divisions and schisms. But it is obvious from all that has happened this year that the Republicans are a party in transition - and to a future that is still difficult to define.

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