The Republican Party defeat is now forced to debate the future. A group of leading conservatives will meet this week to discuss how to rebuild their movement.
Under the weight of war and economic turmoil the tide has turned after nearly three decades of electoral success.
Key pieces of the longstanding Republican coalition of economic and social conservatives, culture-war soldiers and national-security hawks showed severe stress fractures during the long election, and leaders from different wings are now vying for party leadership.
Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin carries the mantle of economic populism and blue-collar voters, many of whom are committed social conservatives. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has emerged as a spokesman for economic conservatives focused on small government and low taxes. Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal remain popular as rising stars.
Complicating the coming fight is a widening gap between the party's grass-roots activists and its intellectual elite. Gov. Palin sits squarely in the center of the debate. Embraced by many social conservatives in the party's base, she was dismissed by some party leaders, including some former government officials who endorsed Democrat Barack Obama. Activists see her as the party's future, others as a novice whose at-times shaky performance has doomed her prospects -- a split reflected in polls that showed her popularity dropping during the general election, but her supporters' enthusiasm high.
Who the next Republican president will be is anyone's guess. The winning message is also unclear. "We didn't have anything to say to the American people other than, 'We're not Democrats. We're not Obama. We're not Hillary,' " said Michael Steele, the former lieutenant governor of Maryland, who is now chairman of GOPAC, a conservative political group. "Well, we know that. So what else is new?"
Republican activist Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform, a conservative advocacy group, points to a record budget deficit, the weakening economy and two unfinished wars and says Republicans must "politely step away from the Bush presidency and say we're going back to basics." For Mr. Norquist, that would mean a return to Ronald Reagan's emphasis on spending restraint, tax cuts, and a robust -- but little-used -- military.
An open question for the party is the support of religious conservatives. They were largely unenthusiastic about Sen. John McCain, but many supported Gov. Palin and, during the primaries, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. Both combine an edgy economic populism with cultural conservatism, which could be a potent political counterweight to Democrats. And despite the prevalence of the economy as an issue this year, social issues remain important to the base.
Some urge the party to embrace a more activist approach that may appeal to younger evangelists who place less emphasis on issues such as abortion but preach about the moral imperative to curb the spread of AIDS in Africa and to fight poverty in urban America. Other conservatives say a broader, big-tent approach could help restore the optimism Mr. Reagan brought to the party.
In the party's immediate future is a battle for leadership in a shrunken Capitol Hill caucus, which has grown more conservative as it has grown smaller. The re-election of Minority Leader John Boehner (R., Ohio) to his leadership post isn't a certainty.
Also likely to face challenges are Minority Whip Roy Blunt, the Missouri Republican, and Florida Rep. Adam Putnam, chairman of the Republican Conference, the third-ranking House Republican. Mr. Putnam, whose responsibilities include developing a message for the party, is facing particular criticism among conservatives restive for a new direction, several House aides said.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said Republicans need to worry less about what's good for the party and more about what's good for the country. "That requires thinking in fundamentally different ways than the last generation of Republican consultants," said Mr. Gingrich, suggesting a "big fight" is brewing among Republicans over the direction of the party.
That fight is likely to be nationwide, with the Republican Governors Association laying plans to elect more Republican governors at its Miami meeting next week. "We cannot win back the hearts of the people from rhetoric out of Washington," said Nick Ayers, the RGA's executive director.
Jockeying also already is under way for the chairmanship of the Republican National Committee, who will become the party's de facto national spokesman. Some state party chairmen, such as those from South Carolina and Florida, are exploring potential runs for RNC chief, Republican officials said.
"We've lost our credibility," said Scott Klug, a former Republican congressman from Wisconsin who said he fears the party is entering a long period of retrenchment. "We're just going to be in the wilderness for a while."