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GOP asking ‘Why?’ and ‘What to do?’

Activists, operatives dissect election

  • Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio, talks about the elections and the unfinished business of Congress, at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2012. The first post-election test of wills could start next week when Congress returns from its election recess to deal with unfinished business — including a looming "fiscal cliff" of $400 billion in higher taxes and $100 billion in automatic cuts in military and domestic spending to take effect in January if Congress doesn't head them off. Economists warn that the combination could plunge the nation back into a recession.  (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

    Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio, talks about the elections and the unfinished business of Congress, at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2012. The first post-election test of wills could start next week when Congress returns from its election recess to deal with unfinished business — including a looming "fiscal cliff" of $400 billion in higher taxes and $100 billion in automatic cuts in military and domestic spending to take effect in January if Congress doesn't head them off. Economists warn that the combination could plunge the nation back into a recession. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

  • Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio, talks about the elections and the unfinished business of Congress, at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2012. The first post-election test of wills could start next week when Congress returns from its election recess to deal with unfinished business — including a looming "fiscal cliff" of $400 billion in higher taxes and $100 billion in automatic cuts in military and domestic spending to take effect in January if Congress doesn't head them off. Economists warn that the combination could plunge the nation back into a recession.  (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

    Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio, talks about the elections and the unfinished business of Congress, at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2012. The first post-election test of wills could start next week when Congress returns from its election recess to deal with unfinished business — including a looming "fiscal cliff" of $400 billion in higher taxes and $100 billion in automatic cuts in military and domestic spending to take effect in January if Congress doesn't head them off. Economists warn that the combination could plunge the nation back into a recession. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

  • FILE - In this July 8, 2008 file photo, then-Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., addresses the Annual League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) Convention in Washington. Having lost the popular vote in five of six presidential elections, Republicans are plunging into intense self-examination. Hard-core conservatives say the party should abandon comparative centrists like John McCain and Mitt Romney. But establishment Republicans note the party still runs the House and President Obama’s popular-vote margin was smaller than before. Perhaps the GOP’s biggest challenge: improving relations with America's fast-growing Hispanics.  (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

    FILE - In this July 8, 2008 file photo, then-Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., addresses the Annual League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) Convention in Washington. Having lost the popular vote in five of six presidential elections, Republicans are plunging into intense self-examination. Hard-core conservatives say the party should abandon comparative centrists like John McCain and Mitt Romney. But establishment Republicans note the party still runs the House and President Obama’s popular-vote margin was smaller than before. Perhaps the GOP’s biggest challenge: improving relations with America's fast-growing Hispanics. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

  • FILE - In this July 8, 2008 file photo, then-Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., addresses the Annual League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) Convention in Washington. Having lost the popular vote in five of six presidential elections, Republicans are plunging into intense self-examination. Hard-core conservatives say the party should abandon comparative centrists like John McCain and Mitt Romney. But establishment Republicans note the party still runs the House and President Obama’s popular-vote margin was smaller than before. Perhaps the GOP’s biggest challenge: improving relations with America's fast-growing Hispanics.  (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

    FILE - In this July 8, 2008 file photo, then-Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., addresses the Annual League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) Convention in Washington. Having lost the popular vote in five of six presidential elections, Republicans are plunging into intense self-examination. Hard-core conservatives say the party should abandon comparative centrists like John McCain and Mitt Romney. But establishment Republicans note the party still runs the House and President Obama’s popular-vote margin was smaller than before. Perhaps the GOP’s biggest challenge: improving relations with America's fast-growing Hispanics. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

  • FILE - In this Sept 17, 2012 file photo, then-Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney addresses the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in Los Angeles. Having lost the popular vote in five of six presidential elections, Republicans are plunging into intense self-examination. Hard-core conservatives say the party should abandon comparative centrists like John McCain and Mitt Romney. But establishment Republicans note the party still runs the House and President Obama’s popular-vote margin was smaller than before. Perhaps the GOP’s biggest challenge: improving relations with America's fast-growing Hispanics.  (AP Photo/David McNew, File)

    FILE - In this Sept 17, 2012 file photo, then-Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney addresses the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in Los Angeles. Having lost the popular vote in five of six presidential elections, Republicans are plunging into intense self-examination. Hard-core conservatives say the party should abandon comparative centrists like John McCain and Mitt Romney. But establishment Republicans note the party still runs the House and President Obama’s popular-vote margin was smaller than before. Perhaps the GOP’s biggest challenge: improving relations with America's fast-growing Hispanics. (AP Photo/David McNew, File)

  • FILE - In this Sept 17, 2012 file photo, then-Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney addresses the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in Los Angeles. Having lost the popular vote in five of six presidential elections, Republicans are plunging into intense self-examination. Hard-core conservatives say the party should abandon comparative centrists like John McCain and Mitt Romney. But establishment Republicans note the party still runs the House and President Obama’s popular-vote margin was smaller than before. Perhaps the GOP’s biggest challenge: improving relations with America's fast-growing Hispanics.  (AP Photo/David McNew, File)

    FILE - In this Sept 17, 2012 file photo, then-Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney addresses the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in Los Angeles. Having lost the popular vote in five of six presidential elections, Republicans are plunging into intense self-examination. Hard-core conservatives say the party should abandon comparative centrists like John McCain and Mitt Romney. But establishment Republicans note the party still runs the House and President Obama’s popular-vote margin was smaller than before. Perhaps the GOP’s biggest challenge: improving relations with America's fast-growing Hispanics. (AP Photo/David McNew, File)

  • Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio, talks about the elections and the unfinished business of Congress, at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2012. The first post-election test of wills could start next week when Congress returns from its election recess to deal with unfinished business — including a looming "fiscal cliff" of $400 billion in higher taxes and $100 billion in automatic cuts in military and domestic spending to take effect in January if Congress doesn't head them off. Economists warn that the combination could plunge the nation back into a recession.  (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
  • Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio, talks about the elections and the unfinished business of Congress, at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2012. The first post-election test of wills could start next week when Congress returns from its election recess to deal with unfinished business — including a looming "fiscal cliff" of $400 billion in higher taxes and $100 billion in automatic cuts in military and domestic spending to take effect in January if Congress doesn't head them off. Economists warn that the combination could plunge the nation back into a recession.  (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
  • FILE - In this July 8, 2008 file photo, then-Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., addresses the Annual League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) Convention in Washington. Having lost the popular vote in five of six presidential elections, Republicans are plunging into intense self-examination. Hard-core conservatives say the party should abandon comparative centrists like John McCain and Mitt Romney. But establishment Republicans note the party still runs the House and President Obama’s popular-vote margin was smaller than before. Perhaps the GOP’s biggest challenge: improving relations with America's fast-growing Hispanics.  (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
  • FILE - In this July 8, 2008 file photo, then-Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., addresses the Annual League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) Convention in Washington. Having lost the popular vote in five of six presidential elections, Republicans are plunging into intense self-examination. Hard-core conservatives say the party should abandon comparative centrists like John McCain and Mitt Romney. But establishment Republicans note the party still runs the House and President Obama’s popular-vote margin was smaller than before. Perhaps the GOP’s biggest challenge: improving relations with America's fast-growing Hispanics.  (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
  • FILE - In this Sept 17, 2012 file photo, then-Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney addresses the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in Los Angeles. Having lost the popular vote in five of six presidential elections, Republicans are plunging into intense self-examination. Hard-core conservatives say the party should abandon comparative centrists like John McCain and Mitt Romney. But establishment Republicans note the party still runs the House and President Obama’s popular-vote margin was smaller than before. Perhaps the GOP’s biggest challenge: improving relations with America's fast-growing Hispanics.  (AP Photo/David McNew, File)
  • FILE - In this Sept 17, 2012 file photo, then-Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney addresses the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in Los Angeles. Having lost the popular vote in five of six presidential elections, Republicans are plunging into intense self-examination. Hard-core conservatives say the party should abandon comparative centrists like John McCain and Mitt Romney. But establishment Republicans note the party still runs the House and President Obama’s popular-vote margin was smaller than before. Perhaps the GOP’s biggest challenge: improving relations with America's fast-growing Hispanics.  (AP Photo/David McNew, File)

Having lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections, Republicans plunged yesterday into an intense period of self-examination, blame-setting and testy debate over whether their party needs serious change or just some minor tweaks.

The fallout will help determine whether the GOP might return to heights approximating the Ronald Reagan years or, as some fear, suffer even deeper losses as the nation’s Democratic-leaning Hispanics increase in number.

“The party is clearly in some sort of identity crisis,” said Rick Tyler, a past aide to former House speaker Newt Gingrich.

Hard-core conservatives, furious at President Obama’s re-election in the face of a weak economy, called for a wholesale shift to resolutely right positions on social and fiscal matters. Some demanded that party leaders resign.

Establishment Republicans largely shrugged off the tirades. But they split into two main camps themselves, portending potentially lengthy soul-searching, especially in Congress.

One group calls for calm and a steady course. It emphasizes that the party still controls the House, and notes that Obama’s popular-vote margin was smaller than in 2008.

“The Republican Party is exactly right on the issues,” said Terry Holt, a veteran GOP strategist with close ties to Republican House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio. The party mainly needs to nominate candidates who can relate to average Americans better than multimillionaire Mitt Romney did, Holt said.

Some other Republicans, however, see bigger problems. The party must shed its “absolutism on issues like tax increases,” which congressional lawmakers oppose at virtually every level, said John Ullyot, a former Republican Senate aide.

“The only way the party is going to move more to the middle is when we get sick of losing,” he said.

That’s essentially what Democrats did in the 1990s. Demoralized after big losses by presidential nominees Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis – and still mindful of George McGovern’s 1972 disaster – Democrats turned to a centrist Arkansas governor, Bill Clinton. He won two elections, repositioned the party and served as Obama’s top surrogate this fall.

Some activists in both parties say Republicans eventually must follow suit to survive. But their primaries are dominated by staunch opponents of tax hikes, abortion, immigration reform and government regulations. Until and unless that changes, a shift toward the center may be impossible.

“It’s harder for the Republicans, because they are more ideological than Democrats,” said Democratic strategist Doug Hattaway.

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