Republican Party Identity Crisis

Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster, said the party shouldn't try to adjust its fundamental views, when polling suggests that the public is still in line with the GOP's core principles.

"America remains a center-right country, and they perceive Barack Obama as a liberal," Ayres told reporters this week. "They voted for him not because he represented liberal policies, but because he represented 'change.'"

Michael Steele, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, seems to be endorsing the view that the party shouldn't adjust to accommodate more diverse viewpoints. He told NPR Wednesday that the GOP is "still a big-tent party," but he added that that doesn't mean inviting in all comers.

"I'm not going to stand at the door with a little checklist and say, 'Well, you can be a Republican and you can't,'" Steele said. "But understand, it's like, you know, when I come to your house for dinner, all right, and I sit down at your table. What do you think of me when I look at your wife or look at you and go, you know, 'This is a nice meal but I would have preferred chicken. And if you could take this plate off, I think I'd like a different type of china.' It is what you serve."

Steele's perspective appears to reflect the prevailing view in the party's grass roots. Activists' frustration with President Bush on spending and the emphasis on some social issues only grew during the McCain campaign, with the GOP nominee breaking from party orthodoxy on areas including immigration, climate change and campaign-finance reform.

Republicans React

But Republican leaders on Capitol Hill are offering a somewhat different take. While expressing anger at Specter's defection, they are musing publicly about recruiting moderate candidates to run in Democratic-leaning states -- similarly to how Democrats have found conservative party members to run in Republican states.

"This is not a time to purify; it's a time to multiply," Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., said on's "Top Line" Thursday.

That point of view is colored by the realities of governing: In losing Specter, Senate leaders have lost their best hope of influencing the Obama agenda.

Numbers -- not principles -- are paramount to those who have to try to govern, said Matt Mackowiak, a former GOP Capitol Hill aide.

"If Democrats have 60 votes to put a liberal on the Supreme Court, a lot of activists are going to have to examine how important purity is," Mackowiak said. "A lot of activists are willing to lose the next two or four years -- get rid of some of those guys they think are unreliable, and hope that Democrats overreach so much that the country moves to the right."

That's a major gamble: Republicans risk losing a generation of voters, he said, and are falling behind Democrats in efforts to attract Latinos and political moderates.

But it also puts more pressure on the president and his Democratic colleagues to govern, Wilson said. Moderate Democrats will face pressure from liberal voices to support an agenda that won't be popular in much of the country, he said.

"The left is going to push Obama -- now that he's got a veto-proof majority -- to drive an agenda that a smart president would realize that is a long-term political disaster," Wilson said.

"There will be fights. There will be people who storm off because they don't get their way. But there will people who come into the party because they see us doing things the right way," he said.

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