WASHINGTON — One week after the Republicans were routed in the presidential election, the fight is on over who will be the new leaders of the party. Republicans are debating how to position themselves ideologically and how aggressively to take on President-elect Barack Obama.
The competition to fill the vacuum left by Senator John McCain’s defeat — and by the unpopularity of President Bush as he prepares to leave office — will be on full display at a Republican Governors Association meeting beginning Wednesday in Miami.
The session will showcase a roster of governors positioning themselves as leaders or future presidential candidates, including Sarah Palinof Alaska, Tim Pawlentyof Minnesota, Charlie Cristof Florida, Bobby Jindalof Louisiana, Haley Barbourof Mississippi and Mark Sanfordof South Carolina.
At the same time, Republicans representing diverse views about the party’s direction are preparing to fight for the chairmanship of the Republican National Committee, a prominent post when the party is out of the White House. The current chairman, Mike Duncan, has signaled that he wants to stay on after his term expires in January, but he is facing challenges from leaders in Florida, Mississippi and South Carolina, among other states.
Mr. Duncan was installed by Mr. Bush, and the fight over his post reflects the effort by many party leaders to erase any remnant of the Bush legacy.
These struggles come as the party prepares for a broad ideological battle, in particular over how much to emphasize social issues like opposition to abortion rights and gay rights. Party leaders said the focus on those issues had constricted the party’s appeal to moderate and independent voters more interested in jobs, health care, education and other issues that touch their lives in more concrete ways.
“We can’t be obsessed with issues that are not the issues that are important to American voters,” said Jim Greer, the Florida Republican chairman and a likely candidate for national party leader.
Across the party, Republicans described this period as one of the toughest in recent history, reflected by the scope of the losses last Tuesday but also by the recriminations that have gripped the party as it seeks to learn lessons from Mr. McCain’s defeat and Mr. Bush’s presidency.
Video: Interview “I hope we are going to stop the infighting and the backbiting and move forward as a party,” said Katon Dawson, the South Carolina chairman, who is a potential candidate for party chairman. “There’s anger about losing the majorities in 2006 and losing the White House and suffering a political tsunami of proportions that are very resemblant of the 1992 election. But that is what encourages me. America often takes a step back and sees the other side.”
This is hardly the first party to have been left sapped and divided by a losing presidential campaign. But the scale of the party’s difficulties appears particularly daunting as the Bush era seems to be ending and no obvious leader is waiting in the wings.
“We need to be honest about the level of failure for the past eight years and why Republican government didn’t succeed,” said Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, who has played an increasingly assertive role in the debate over the party’s future. “Otherwise, we’ll get back in power again and do the same things again.”
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In another year, Mr. McCain might have continued to lead the Republicans through this interim period. But he has never been particularly well-liked in his party, and his standing was seriously eroded by a campaign that was widely criticized as inept.
Ms. Palin inspired a wave of enthusiasm from social conservatives when Mr. McCain named her as his running mate, and she has signaled that she intends to remain an influential voice in the party. But she has been forced in recent days to defend herself from criticism by unnamed McCain aides and from polls suggesting that she had hurt Mr. McCain more than she helped him.
The extent of her interest in repairing her image and moving to the front of the line was reflected in the series of interviews she has done and her full schedule of public appearances in Miami.
The vacuum seems unlikely to be filled on Capitol Hill, where Republicans suffered losses last week. John A. Boehnerof Ohio, the House minority leader, and Mitch McConnellof Kentucky, the Senate minority leader, were weakened as they oversaw losses in their conferences. Both have always been more inside players than the kind of politicians who could lead a dispirited party through a difficult time.
But as part of the ideological struggles, some members of a new generation of Republicans, like Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia, are in leadership positions that could give them a chance to reinvigorate the party and update the image of the conservative movement.
The most important question for Republicans in both the House and the Senate — and for the future Republican chairman — is how forcefully to take on Mr. Obama once he becomes president. Richard N. Bond, a former Republican chairman, said he thought the Congressional Republicans would — and should — take on Mr. Obama aggressively. Mr. Bond suggested that Republicans should not be deterred by the enthusiasm inspired by Mr. Obama’s election, which he argued would be transitory.
“When people wake up from their Bush hangovers, six months from now,” Mr. Bond said, “it is my belief that they are not going to be buying into some of the things that Obama will potentially be doing. You have a real potential for these guys making a fundamental misjudgment of this election. They just didn’t want George Bush anymore.”
But Mr. Gingrich, a veteran of what turned out to be damaging Republican wars with President Bill Clintonin 1993 and 1994, cautioned against that, saying the party would be wiser to offer a broad idea of what it stood for and how it would lead the country, and pick its battles carefully.
“I think the party should be very selective,” he said. “We’ve had an election. The new president and his family should be in our prayers. We should give every indication that we will work with him when we can. But we should be comfortable disagreeing with him when we have to.”
This story, "Sparring starts as Republicans ponder future," originally appeared in the New York Times.
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