Among the gaudy elephant jewelry, Jesse Helms key chains and other GOP tchotchkes displayed on exhibitors' tables at the North Carolina Conservative Leadership Conference sat a basketful of pins that read "W: Still the President."
For some conservatives, that's precisely the problem.
Despite an appearance by presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani and an upbeat tenor that infused the corridors of the Sheraton Raleigh Hotel last weekend, conservatives conceded the albatross of the Bush administration is dragging down the party's hopes of retaining the presidency in 2008.
"The Republicans are in serious trouble," said Fred Barnes, executive editor of The Weekly Standard and co-host of Fox News' The Beltway Boys, speaking on a panel about the 2008 presidential election. "The '06 election wasn't just about an unpopular war in Iraq. There was much more to it than that."
"We sincerely need President Bush to get a boost before leaving office," added Republican media consultant Marc Rotterman. "Being down won't help the Republican Party."
Yet there are so many things to keep the president, and by association, the party, down. Most notably, it is the war in Iraq, and the boondoggle at the Veterans Administration, where wounded soldiers at Walter Reed hospital were housed in Building 18 among mice, mold and cockroaches. There were snafus at the Justice Department over the PATRIOT Act and U.S. Attorney firings, and at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, where its leadership disintegrated like the levees during Hurricane Katrina. "Gonzales is inept," Rotterman said. "And there was a failure to deal with Katrina. During Eisenhower or Reagan, we would have gotten the bodies off the bridge."
There also has been a parade of high-profile ethical scandals: Florida Rep. Mark Foley and his sexual advances toward congressional pages, convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff and his ties to high-ranking Republicans including former House Majority Leader and persona non grata Tom DeLay, and the latest—Deputy Secretary of State Randall Tobias and his involvement with the "D.C. Madam" case.
Nor have Republicans tended to their own values. "We became part of big government," Rotterman said. "I'm not a fan of No Child Left Behind. I'm not a fan of the prescription drug bill. And we have an $8 trillion debt. The Republicans lost in '06 because the American people perceived we didn't stand for anything."
The lack of a clear platform could be contributing to the general erosion in support for the GOP. Barnes cited a recent Pew Research poll that suggested that half the American public identifies with the Democratic Party, compared with 35 percent with Republicans. In 2002, the country was more evenly divided, with 43 percent identifying with Republicans and an equal proportion leaning Democratic. (However, pollsters noted Democrats still aren't held in high esteem; the Republican flight, especially among independents, is just happening more quickly.)
It has been difficult for the GOP to agree on the issue that could unite them: illegal immigration. Two Republican candidates, Giuliani and John McCain, are viewed, often critically, as pro-immigration. Yet, during the first five years of the Bush administration, when Republicans controlled both the House and Senate, Congress failed to pass immigration reform. Now, Republicans must try to lure Hispanic voters to the party while satisfying the conservative base, many of whom vehemently oppose amnesty or a guest worker program. "Republicans need to solve the immigration issue," Barnes said. "It divides Republicans so angrily."
The party divisions and what Barnes called the "lack of the big idea" have produced an equally divisive and disparate slate of Republican presidential candidates. Giuliani talks tough on terrorism, but his liberal views on abortion, gun control and gay rights alienate social conservatives. Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, whom Barnes called "camera-ready," won't play in the Bible Belt because of his vacillations on the big three issues: guns, gays and abortion. McCain has hitched his wagon to the Bush administration's stubborn support for the Iraq war. That leaves two dark horses: Fred Thompson, who, Barnes said, "is not a good campaigner, but he's got a great presence and can raise money. People would like to see him run"; and Newt Gingrich, who, Barnes added, is the "intellectual heir to Ronald Reagan."
As for Bush, his credibility lies only with the loyalists, and that number is shrinking. "People aren't paying much attention to him now," Barnes said.