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The disarray can't be blamed on Bush entirely; he may even deserve credit for postponing it. Some students of the G.O.P. have argued that the revolution that brought the party to power in Congress in 1994 was pretty much a spent force by 2000. Under this theory, Republicans should have lost that election but survived thanks to Bush's qualities, the butterfly ballot and five Supreme Court Justices. Then 9/11 happened, which enabled Bush to win reelection, despite the fact that the G.O.P.'s sell-by date had long since passed. The past seven years, in this view, were an anomaly that postponed the reckoning and made the G.O.P. crash even more severe.
Still, it is hard to overestimate the moral and intellectual power outage that now darkens the G.O.P.. Long out of step with a majority of voters on such secondary issues as outlawing abortion and narrowing stem-cell research, Republicans have more recently managed to get themselves on the wrong side of popular trends on what were once old reliables: foreign policy, economics, energy, even health care. Iraq is still somewhat taboo in Republican debates, so fearful are the candidates that the situation in Baghdad might again deteriorate. Thanks to Katrina and several war-contracting scandals, the party has squandered its bragging rights on running a more efficient government. "We've lost, clearly, some of the moral high ground on the larger issues of taxes and spending," says South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford.
On one issue that might favor them next year immigration the leading Republicans have had to scramble to realign themselves with voters in their base. Bush came into office in 2001 in favor of a pathway to citizenship for some illegals, only to discover that his party's right flank opposed it. Giuliani, McCain and Romney, all of whom to varying degrees once backed that approach, have recalibrated their positions so that they share the public's desire to secure the borders before granting aliens any legal rights to put down roots. The party's nativist temptation is already having an impact: almost 6 out of every 10 Hispanic voters now call themselves Democrats or lean that way, according to a new Pew Center study a shift of 13 points in party ID in the past year alone.
So what's left to talk about? Peter Wehner, who worked for Bush in the White House on strategic initiatives for more than six years, wonders if the candidates' repeated calls for an era of Reagan-like optimism aren't anachronistic. "Some have lifted a script from the past," he says, "without realizing the setting on the stage has changed." The intellectual fatigue guarantees that the Republicans will fall back on the one issue that unites them: the Democrats. Giuliani has led the charge here, repeatedly naming Hillary Clinton in debates as the real threat facing the nation. But Sanford warns that there are limits to this approach. Sounding the alarm about Democrats may not work, he says, because the electorate is "fairly ticked off at Republicans." But he adds that Republican self-doubt is so marked that if Jesus came back as a candidate, "people would say, 'You know, I don't like his beard.'"
That skepticism extends to nearly all the candidates as well. A Republican governor put it this way: "If you took any one of these guys and held them up against the light and said, 'Could this guy be President?' you'd say, 'I don't think so.'" While they are, on paper, a distinguished group a living hero and sitting U.S. Senator, a former Senator and popular actor, two former Governors and a prosecutor turned mayor of the nation's most populous city each has handicaps that are limiting.