Page last updated at 01:59 GMT, Thursday, 6 November 2008

What next for the Republicans?

By Matthew Price
BBC News, Arizona

John McCain
The soul-searching has already begun after John McCain's loss

Standing in a crowd of several hundred Republicans, bathed in autumn sunshine, somewhere in-between Toledo and Cleveland last week, I realised why the Republicans were failing to get their message across.

I was - to paraphrase former US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld - in "Old America".

The crowd around me was predominantly middle-aged, or elderly. Those people were born in a different era.

By contrast "Barack Obama's America" appears to its supporters a diverse, forward-looking place.

This is what the Republicans now have to fight, to become once again the party of new ideas.

To be fair, election night was not the rout that many predicted for the Republicans.

They did lose support in every area of the country, they lost Virginia, and in the suburbs.

They held on in the popular vote though, and they suffered fewer losses than many feared in congressional races, especially for the House of Representatives.

Number of problems

However you only need to click on any one of the numerous Republican blogs, and you will see the soul-searching that has already started.

The battle some believe will be between economic conservatives and culture warriors

Even before the last week of campaigning, senior Republicans were planning a meeting to discuss where they would go from here.

"Win or lose," they said, but you sensed they knew it would be lose.

The Republicans have a number of problems.

Younger voters favoured Mr Obama by a big margin. So too did Latinos. Both groups represent major parts of the electorate in the coming years.

A Republican in Phoenix
The Republicans were defeated, but not by the margins some had feared

The executive editor of the Weekly Standard, Fred Barnes, argues that two things have gone wrong.

"The first is the party's image, which has suffered because of an unpopular Republican president, scandals in Congress, and a party the media claims is too conservative.

"The other is the sour political mood in the country caused by a weak economy, the financial meltdown, and the feeling the nation is headed in the wrong direction."

A possible Republican response to its problems, Mr Barnes suggests, "might be to elevate moderates to positions of leadership".

Talk of 'civil war'

But moderates will not be the answer as far as the party base is concerned.

Just look at the struggle its candidate, John McCain, had over his vice-presidential pick.

Sarah Palin embraces John McCain
Sarah Palin made it difficult for John McCain to broaden his appeal

He wanted either the former Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman, or Tom Ridge - who supports abortion rights.

Neither was deemed "acceptable" to the party base, and in the end the socially conservative Sarah Palin was forced on him.

There is much talk in the conservative blogosphere of the possibility of a Republican civil war.

The party is diverse.

It is a huge umbrella group of social-conservatives - whose primary policy goal is the protection of the unborn; fiscal-conservatives who wish the party instead would focus on tax rates; neo-conservatives who advocate military pre-emption abroad; anti-immigration hawks who helped turn off the Latino vote.

Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia believes "there is going to be an explosion and implosion in the Republican Party".

Dreadful mess

The battle, some believe, will be between economic conservatives and culture warriors.

Ms Palin may lead the cultural conservative faction's efforts to control the party in 2012 in a battle with Republicans seeking a more centrist approach.

There are though others who are less apocalyptic. Philip Klein, in The American Spectator magazine, wrote on the day after the election, that "America is not as conservative as it seemed in 2004 and it isn't as liberal as it looks this morning".

Still, as an old friend and political ally of Mr McCain told me just before the election was lost, there are many who believe the Republican party is in a dreadful mess.

The co-chair of the Republicans in Arizona, Wes Gullett, believes the party has lost its way.

He said the Republican party of Abraham Lincoln had a soul, but today, they have lost it.

They need to find it again.

There are those though who also believe that in Barack Obama's victory, there are signs of hope for the Republicans.

As Roger Simon argues in Politico newspaper: "Obama's victory does not signal a shift in ideology in this country. Barack Obama made people feel good by voting for him.

"Is the Republican Party finished? No, and even though it will go through the typical agonizing post-train-wreck re-appraisals, the party's remedy might be far simpler than it now appears. The Republicans are just one compelling leader away from being back in the game.'"

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