Past 100 days have been rough for GOP as it seeks message

They have searched for direction and hunted for leadership, but what Republicans ultimately hope to find is the strategy that can counter a popular Democratic president.

As President Obama rounds his first 100 days in office this week, many Republicans acknowledge they have endured a rocky transition to life without control of the White House. But upcoming debates in Congress on health care and climate change could provide the GOP with an opportunity to reinvent itself as a taxpayer advocate.

And that, some in the party say, could be the strategy Republicans are seeking.

"The party still has major challenges, obviously," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who has emerged as a leading Obama critic since losing the election to him last year. "I think we're starting to come out of the defeat that we suffered in 2008. ... We are making some small inroads."

Republican leaders have used Obama's $787 billion economic stimulus plan and proposed $3.6 trillion budget to portray the president as a tax-and-spend liberal whose policies will saddle future generations with debt. "We can't continue to spend and borrow at the rate that we're going," House Minority Leader John Boehner said last week.

Republican lawmakers are directing similar pocketbook criticism at proposals to overhaul the nation's health care system and revamp energy policy to reduce carbon emissions. Republicans caution both plans could cost families money during the economic downturn.

The message appears to be working. Asked to name the worst thing Obama has done as president, three in 10 named big spending and bailout plans in a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll last week.

Hammering away at Obama also carries risks, the same poll showed. More than half — 56% — said Republicans have not made a sincere effort to work with him.

"If you had to give a title to the past 100 days, it's 'finding their feet,' " Jack Pitney, a government professor at Claremont McKenna College in California, said of the Republicans. "They're struggling up. They're not on the mat, but they're not in full punching stance, either."

Last November's defeat went beyond the White House.

Democrats control 256 House seats and will have 59 in the Senate, if courts uphold Democratic candidate Al Franken's narrow lead in Minnesota. That is an increase of 31 seats in Congress compared with 2007. Republicans have 178 seats in the House and 41 in the Senate.

McCain and other Republicans said the key to their strategy will be to offer viable alternatives to Democratic proposals. Striking a balance between the GOP's conservative and centrist wings will be one challenge to that approach. The other: Getting people to pay attention.

"More people are familiar with Bo the Portuguese water dog then they are with the Republican budget alternative," said Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., referring to Obama's dog. "When you control the bully pulpit, you can control most of the message."

Ryan, the highest-ranking Republican on the House Budget Committee, said the GOP is gaining in the message war. "We're finding our voice," he said. "Sooner or later the American people are going to know that we actually stand for something."

The party has struggled to decide whose voice it wants the public to hear. The newly minted chairman of the Republican National Committee, Michael Steele, angered many in March when he said in a GQ interview that abortion is an "individual choice."

Other GOP leaders have materialized, including House Minority Whip Eric Cantor of Virginia, who was credited with keeping his colleagues unanimously opposed to the stimulus, and South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, also a stimulus critic. Both have had to compete for attention from well-known party personalities, such as talk-show host Rush Limbaugh and former vice president Dick Cheney.

Michael Franc of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, said it is too early to judge the party's response to Obama. For now, the former congressional aide said, many are waiting to see what the Democrats do. "As you govern and you actually start confronting this set of issues, you have to air out your dirty laundry and it's not a pretty sight. Democrats haven't hit that stage yet."