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GOP checks for a pulse, and finds one

Conservatives have shown in recent weeks that they can have at least some influence as the voice of the opposition, and in the process energize what is left of their movement.
/ Source: The New York Times

Less than a year after an election that nearly wiped them out politically, conservatives are showing signs of life.

They are still searching for new leaders and new ideas. Their victories have been more about taking advantage of President Obama’s missteps than advancing an agenda that can recapture large numbers of voters.

But they have shown in recent weeks that they can have at least some influence as the voice of the opposition — and in the process energize what remains of their movement. The more upbeat mood was evident in Washington on Friday at a jubilant and crowded Values Voter Summit that brought together some of the most passionate social conservatives.

They cheered as speakers recalled the turnout for the protest against Mr. Obama last Saturday in Washington, the August public forums that put Democrats on the defensive on health care, the successful campaign to force the White House to fire its green-jobs czar, and the push in Congress to cut financing for a community organization group, Acorn, that has long been a target of the right.

“While some are prepared to write the obituary on our values and our movement, I believe we are on the brink of a great American awakening,” Representative Mike Pence, Republican of Indiana, said at the summit, raising cheers from the crowd in the room. “I believe we are on the brink of a great American awakening. I can see it. I can feel it wherever I go.”

New hope
Whatever problems the conservative movement has encountered — a string of electoral defeats, evidence that its membership is getting smaller and older, the demands of coming up with a new ideological agenda to meet changing times — these recent victories have given new hope to this formerly dispirited base of the Republican Party that it can still command public attention and influence policy in Washington. And this is no small matter for Republicans going into next year’s midterm Congressional elections, in a year when Mr. Obama will not be on top of the ballot.

Yet while the conservative movement seems to be finding its voice again, it may be premature to say that it is back on its feet. At a time when the Republican Party is in search of new leaders, the procession of familiar faces on stage Friday and in the audience was striking. Two of the party’s biggest names — Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, and Sarah Palin, the party’s vice-presidential nominee in 2008 — did not show up at all, citing scheduling conflicts.

Many Republicans have been arguing that the party’s focus on social issues is a mistake at a time when voters are concerned about the economic downturn and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. But the emphasis at the summit, sponsored the Family Research Council, was still decidedly on issues like same-sex marriage and abortion. The crowd rose to its feet to applaud Carrie Prejean, the former Miss California who caused a furor by denouncing same-sex marriage at the Miss USA contest, as she declared that “God chose me” to make the case she made.

That this bloc of the Republican Party is becoming re-energized presents complications for any Republican thinking about running for president in 2012. It is going to be hard to win the nomination without strongly courting this segment of the party.

Finally, even though many Republicans have argued that the party needs new ideas to counter Mr. Obama, the overwhelming sentiment at the summit was that the conservative message of the past 30 years was as effective as ever.

“There are so many people who have told us as conservatives that we should move to the center, on the sanctity of marriage or the sanctity of life,” said Mike Huckabee, a former governor of Arkansas who ran for president in 2008 and is likely to run again in 2012. “ ‘Just move to the center.’

“I’m not sure the center makes a whole lot of sense when it’s coming from people who certainly don’t have our interest, or our country’s interest, at heart.”

It is not so much that the political climate is shifting to the right; it is more that the conservative movement has found ways to break through and get attention — often with decidedly unorthodox methods, including combative town-hall-style meetings. And the conservative movement has been helped by the backlash to the cost and sheer ambition of Mr. Obama’s first-year agenda: the big economic stimulus package, the intervention in the automobile industry and the effort to reshape the health care system. The argument that the White House may be overreaching has, at the very least, given conservatives an opening.

“What holds the conservative movement now is how appalled everyone is at what liberals are trying to do,” said Maggie Gallagher, the president of the National Organization for Marriage, which is fighting efforts to advance same-sex marriage. “I think the conservative movement is far more energized than it was six months ago.”

For now, the most significant thing about this swing of the pendulum may be simply that a part of the electorate that largely sat out the last election is suddenly interested again. “There were conservatives that were never moved to exercise themselves that now are,” said Erika Barger, 21, a Georgetown University student from Ormond Beach, Fla.

After the year that conservatives have endured, that is by any measure welcome news for them.

Bernie Becker contributed reporting.

This story, "G.O.P. Checks for a Pulse, and Finds One," originally appeared in The New York Times.