WASHINGTON Nearly five months after being swamped by Barack Obama's electoral tidal wave, Republicans are struggling to find their footing against a popular president whose Democrats control Washington.
The Republican National Committee, responsible for fund-raising for candidates across the country, has so far yet to bloom under its gaffe-prone new chairman, Michael Steele.
One of the party's biggest stars and a potential 2012 presidential candidate, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, has meanwhile hit a series of obstacles.
Palin was Republican presidential nominee John McCain's vice presidential running mate in last year's campaign, but McCain recently would not commit to supporting her in 2012.
In a mix-up blamed on staff confusion, she was replaced as keynote speaker at a June fund-raising dinner for congressional Republicans by former House speaker Newt Gingrich.
"Palin had a golden opportunity to speak to the House and the Senate premier fund-raisers and blew it by having an incompetent staff and by being indecisive," said Republican strategist Scott Reed.
Another rising star, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, was widely panned after his speech responding to Obama's address to Congress in February fell flat.
Only Republican lawmakers lined up against Obama and his Democratic majorities in the U.S. Congress have found their voice with any consistency, challenging the wisdom of Obama's proposed $3.55 trillion budget.
"The fact is that if you look at this budget, it spends too much, it taxes too much and it puts too much debt on the backs of our kids and grandkids," said John Boehner who leads the Republican minority in the House of Representatives.
PARTY OF 'NO'?
By adamantly opposing Obama, Republicans left themselves open to a Democratic counter-attack that paints them as the "party of no." Republicans delayed putting forth their own budget alternative, and when they did, it lacked detail.
Obama's budget blueprint passed both houses of Congress on Thursday on a largely party-line vote. Republicans have taken to calling themselves "the honest opposition."
Party elders believe Republicans have time to regroup by taking back the mantle of fiscal responsibility that they lost by raising spending when George W. Bush was president and they controlled Congress.
They point to opinion polls showing that while Obama is enormously popular, his budget is less so.
A Washington Post/ABC News poll released this week had Obama's job approval rating at 66 percent with approval of his handling of the economy at 60 percent and his handling of the federal budget deficit at 52 percent.
"I'm sensing increasing concern at our fiscal situation, at the amount of money we're spending," said Republican pollster Whit Ayres.
"While that has not at this point seriously affected the president's numbers, there are a number of indicators just beneath the surface that show a growing concern."
Nicolle Wallace, a Republican strategist who was advised McCain's campaign, said Republicans need to "organize themselves and craft easily understandable and accessible messages about the philosophical dispute" with Obama.
The party should pinpoint leaders on each major topic of debate and rally around them. She suggested letting New Hampshire Republican Senator Judd Gregg, a strong advocate for fiscal responsibility, lead the budget debate, tapping McCain to talk about national security and having former Florida Governor Jeb Bush as the party's top voice on education.
"I feel like there are a lot of strong Republicans out there. They just aren't out around the table operating from a single playbook yet."
After all, she said, after Massachusetts Democratic Senator John Kerry lost the presidency to Republican Bush in 2004, the Democrats rallied back to the point where they now control all of Washington.
"We have plenty of time to come back but I think that we just have to get organized," she said. (Editing by Alan Elsner)