Can Perry, Bachmann, or Romney Save the Republican Party Brand?

It seems unlikely any of the lead candidates will be able to save the party's toxic brand.

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The Republican Party needs a Sister Souljah it can call its own. Or more precisely, the GOP needs a "Sister Souljah moment."

Back in the summer of 1992, then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton criticized rapper Sister Souljah after she made offensive remarks about blacks killing whites instead of each other. The moment quickly entered the political lexicon as shorthand for a politician rebuking an extremist in his or her base in order to demonstrate to independents that they are not beholden to the party's core special interests

[Read commentary from Robert Schlesinger, Mort Zuckerman, and others in U.S. News Weekly, now available as an iPad app.]

And judging by the disintegrating GOP brand, the party's 2012 standard bearer will need such a moment once the candidate clears the primaries. However, none seems capable of executing such a pivot. [See who's running in the GOP primary field.]

But boy do they need to. According to a recent CNN/Opinion Research poll, 33 percent of Americans view the GOP favorably, as compared to 59 percent who view it unfavorably. As recently as March, the party was at 44-48; and just before the 2010 midterms, they stood at 44-43. This is a stunning collapse—and a historic one. Since CNN started polling such things, the GOP has only once been 26 points underwater, in December 1998, when the party impeached President Clinton even after a public rebuke in that year's midterms. The party was only 14 points in the negative (38-52) in November 2006 and only 16 points upside down (38-54) when President Obama was elected in 2008. [Check out political cartoons about the GOP.]

And the CNN poll isn't an outlier. A recent Gallup poll showed Democrats with a 7 percent edge in the generic congressional ballot. One element likely driving the GOP's numbers downward is the concurrent cratering of the Tea Party's ratings. CNN's poll, for example, pegs the movement's disapproval rating at 51 percent, almost double its 26 percent level from January (before, you know, they started actually governing). Similarly, a recent New York Times/CBS poll found that the movement's disapproval rating has gone from 29 percent in April to 40 percent this month.

But wait, conservative readers are no doubt saying, Congress's approval rating is at a historic low (13 percent, according to Gallup) so surely public anger has tarred the Democratic brand as well. After all, a fell tide sinks all boats. Not so much. According to CNN, the Democrats retain 47 percent approval and 47 percent disapproval, a level it has basically hung around at since January of last year.

The reason for this is clear: The GOP deliberately created a debt crisis which endangered and ultimately harmed the nation's creditworthiness. Despite overwhelming evidence that the public prefers to solve the deficit and debt issues with a combination of tax increases and spending cuts, the GOP has stubbornly refused to even consider revenue hikes. And that is perhaps the GOP's most fundamental problem. Poll after poll shows that independent voters prefer leaders who compromise over politicians who refuse to move from their positions. But the same polls show that Tea Party supporters have a diametrically opposite view. So GOPers, mindful of the incumbent seats the conservative fringe collected in primary challenges last year, have disdained compromise as a dirty word. [Read: Both Sides Not to Blame for the Debt Crisis.]

That's why Obama (whose 41 percent approval looks grand next to Congress's rating) is gearing up for a Truman-esque run against Congress and its stubborn gridlock. If Congress doesn't act on the jobs plan he will unveil in September, he said last week, "then we'll be running against a Congress that's not doing anything for the American people, and the choice will be very stark and will be very clear." In keeping with his post-partisan brand, the president is hitting the Congress as a whole rather than just House Republicans. But he does so knowing that the GOP has taken the bulk of the damage from anti-Congress sentiment. [Check out political cartoons about the economy.]