Republicans Struggle to Unite in the Obama Era

Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh, and Dick Cheney are all controversial figures in the GOP.

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It isn't getting any easier to be a Republican. Only 22 percent of the voters identify with the GOP, according to the Pew Research Center, compared with 39 percent who see themselves as independents and 33 percent who consider themselves Democrats. The party has no consistent message. And in an era when Barack Obama so clearly represents the Democrats, the Republicans are ill defined, with a multiplicity of voices inside and outside Congress, none of them very popular and most little known outside Washington or their home states.

It gets worse. One third of Republicans have an unfavorable view of their own party (compared with only 4 percent of Democrats who think unfavorably of their party), according to a new USA Today/Gallup Poll. Fifty-two percent of Americans can't specify the "main person" who speaks for the Republicans. Thirteen percent say it's radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh, followed by former Vice President Dick Cheney at 12 percent, Arizona Sen. John McCain (the party's presidential nominee last year) at 5 percent, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich at 4. Former President George W. Bush came in fifth, with only 3 percent. All these potential spokesmen are middle-aged or elderly white men, at a time when more and more voters are women, Hispanics, and young.

Last week, the party's internal tug of war got a bit more intense when party leaders in Washington sparred with Sarah Palin, the charismatic governor of Alaska who catapulted to fame as McCain's vice presidential running mate last year. Palin has become a darling of grass-roots conservatives but an unreliable enigma to many veterans of the GOP establishment.

The latest fuss seemed petty to some but exposed serious GOP fault lines. It started when Palin didn't confirm she would attend a Washington fundraising dinner Monday for the National Republican Congressional Committee and the National Republican Senatorial Committee. After several weeks of confusion, the organizers decided to give the coveted keynote speaker's slot to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a potential competitor with Palin for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination. Just before the event, Palin decided she wanted to attend after all. But she wasn't assigned to the head table and wasn't given an opportunity to address the group, which some of her fans considered a slap. Palin was seated in the first row, however, and drew a big crowd of well-wishers.

Palin's fans say that, while she is distrusted by Washington's conservative insiders, she remains one of the GOP's biggest draws. The weekend before the Washington fundraiser, she helped to attract 20,000 people to a parade in Auburn, N.Y., the hometown of William Seward, secretary of state in the 1860s and the man who arranged for the United States to buy Alaska from Russia.

But prominent GOP strategists don't understand why Palin has avoided appearing at events that could bolster her standing among conservatives who will be instrumental in the 2012 primaries. "She's getting a reputation for being on-again, off-again," says one conservative strategist. "People aren't even sure how to get in touch with her and whether their messages are getting through." Conservatives say their calls to her office in Alaska frequently aren't returned, leading to speculation that she isn't interested in cooperating with the GOP establishment and that her staff isn't ready for prime time.

Some Republicans say she needs to concentrate first and foremost on being a good governor, but she runs the risk of alienating conservative leaders if she is too aloof. Palin needs to make a basic decision, the conservative strategist says: "Is she running for president surreptitiously or overtly?"

More important, Palin is doing little or nothing to create a consensus on what it means to be a Republican and seems reluctant to reach out to new voters, which many GOP strategists consider their top priority.

Meanwhile, others are trying to build a new majority, but their messages have yet to catch on. The GOP's appeal since Ronald Reagan made conservatism the dominant ideology has been based on four themes: cutting taxes, slowing the growth of government, preserving "family values," and strengthening national defense. But in recent years, many Republicans have felt their party going astray, especially on the issues of limiting government, restraining spending, and making common-sense decisions about using force and enhancing national security.