End of the GOP as We Know It? Maybe

The votes have not yet even been cast, let alone counted, yet, many worried Republicans are fearful that Nov. 4 will bring not just the defeat of John McCain, but the veritable death of the Republican Party as they know it.

Republicans are bracing for the possibility of a crippling loss come Election Day, in which they would both relinquish the White House and allow Democrats to maintain their control of Congress.

McCain could pull off a come-from-behind victory next Tuesday, but already, GOP fingers are being pointed and stock is being taken. Some pessimistic Republicans believe the party, as it exists on Election Day, will not remain the same come Nov. 5.

"John McCain is dragging a bloated corpse around with him. Something will have to change. The party's soul is at stake," said ABC News consultant Richard Norton Smith, the former director of the Lincoln, Hoover, Eisenhower, Reagan and Ford presidential libraries.

What is looming for many Republicans is a fight over which wing of the party will wrest control of the GOP's mantle, right wing social and fiscal conservatives, like Newt Gingrich, evangelical Christians, like Mike Huckabee, or moderate Republicans, like Rudy Giuliani.

For the past 40 years, the GOP's success has come from a broad coalition of conservatives. Evangelical Christians who have pushed a pro-life, values-based agenda have made strange but powerful bedfellows of libertarians and fiscal conservatives who want small government and a laissez-faire approach to their lives and finances. Isolationists who do not support U.S. intervention in foreign affairs have supported and voted for the same candidates backed by neo-conservatives who believe the U.S. has the right to extend its power anywhere in the world.

That coalition, which experts say has been fraying for years, could ultimately be undone by this election. Each faction believes it represents the soul of the party and each is jockeying to become the base on which the party's new incarnation should be built.

McCain and Republican Party: A Failed Election?

"The Republican Party and the conservative coalition is an unstable compound that has been coming apart for several years," Smith said. "The immigration debate illustrated that dramatically and the infighting around the Wall Street bailout even more so. Pat Buchanan isolationist Republicans have little in common with Wall Street Republicans, and libertarian Republicans have little in common with the religious right."

"The party will have to decide which of those strains will revive the party and lead it into the future." he said.

The contemporary coalition that comprises the party began with Richard Nixon courting conservative Southerners away from the Democratic Party and bringing the Western states, including California, into the tent. Reagan built on that foundation cementing the Christian right as the party's surest base and inspiring a generation of young conservatives.

Recent polls show the Democrats have encroached on what was once staunch Republican property. Barack Obama has made battlegrounds out of Virginia and North Carolina, and may be able to claim victory in one-time GOP strongholds like Nevada, New Mexico and Colorado. California has not voted for a Republican in a presidential election since 1988.

"McCain will be held responsible for losing this election, but he can't be fully blamed for what is happening inside the party," said Ed Rollins, a Republican strategist who chaired Gov. Mike Huckabee's primary campaign. "Both Bushes are somewhat responsible. Nixon made an effort to shift Democrats to Republicans and Reagan turned on a new generation of young conservatives who came of age during his presidency. The party has stopped that outreach in recent years, young voters are turned off."

If McCain loses, he will likely be blamed for failing to connect with "values voters," the religious wing of the party that pushed George W. Bush twice to victory, despite cracks in the coalition.

The religious right believes McCain should have made a bigger deal of the social issues that helped clinch victory for Bush in 2000 and 2004 –- abortion, gay marriage, and immigration.

Death of the Republican Party

"I've lived through the 'death' of the Republican Party four times starting with Watergate. Every so often you find yourself in the wilderness and have to put together a new coalition," Rollins said.

Rollins predicted that the party could not move forward if it turned its back on the religious right.

"You don't just walk away from religious voters. They make up 39 percent of the populace. You build from there to get to 51 percent. Whether the party moves more to the right or more to the center, we're in an era of personality politics and picking a candidate everyone can get behind is essential," Rollins said.

Rollins predicted that many of the contenders for the nomination were still players in the party's future. "Huckabee has the religious right and is in it. Giuliani, more of a moderate, is still in it. Romney, who no one knows if he is socially conservative or not, is in it. And Palin will almost certainly play a role."

Gov. Sarah Palin has become a divisive figure in the party. Depending on where you stand, she is the social-conservative standard bearer needed to charge the base, or a neophyte whose inexperience has dragged down the ticket. Republicans inside and outside the campaign are increasingly nervous that a rift between the running mates is hurting the ticket's chances.

"McCain must know he's made a huge mistake," said conservative columnist Kathleen Parker who early on broke with the pack to condemn McCain's choice of Palin as his vice presidential running mate.

"She has been under a lot of stress. She is under siege and they're a bit like a couple on their honeymoon who find out they don't like each other after all," she said.

An elected president becomes the de facto head of the party and appoints a chairman. If the McCain fails to win, the 68 members of the Republican National Committee will elect a chair.

"The party is going to be driven into their deepest base. It is going to be even more of a white, Protestant, Evangelical, right wing party," said Sydney Blumenthal, a former Clinton advisor and author of "The Strange Death of Republican America: Chronicles of a Collapsing Party."

"McCain has always been a marginal figure. He is a party of one. In the short run the party reaction is going to be typical of a discredited party. It will say it didn't go far enough, we weren't pure enough. We didn't represent the true conservatives," Blumenthal said.

Conservative columnist George Will, however, is less certain that the religious right will come out on top of the party.

"Since I came to Washington in 1970 there has been a great sorting out of the parties, a sort of Europeanization. Almost all the liberal Republicans have left the Republican Party and all the conservative Democrats have left the Democratic Party. There will be another similar sorting out, the only thing we know for sure is that it will be a conservative party," he said.

"Whether it will be a more moderate or less moderate conservative party is to be decided. That's the really big question."