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For Republicans, Will It Be United They Stand, Divided They Fall?

While high gas prices, the war in Iraq and political fallout from Hurricane Katrina have taken their toll on President Bush’s job approval ratings, Republican voters remain loyal to their commander in chief. [IMGCAP(1)]

But that could change unless Republicans on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue can agree on an agenda than unites and energizes the party going into next year’s elections. So far, the signs are not good.

The president’s sinking job approval ratings — now between 40 percent and 45 percent in most polls — do not reflect an across-the-board deterioration in his poll numbers.

Democrats always have disliked Bush, and they continue to give him horrible job ratings, including a 12 percent approval rating in a Sept. 8-11 CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll.

Bush’s worsening job ratings are due almost entirely to his growing weakness among independent voters. The same poll showed that just 31 percent of independents approved of the president’s performance, while two-thirds of those responding disapproved.

Republicans, on the other hand, remain remarkably loyal to Bush, considering the rash of bad news that has battered him and his presidency. In that Gallup survey, 85 percent of Republicans still approved of Bush’s performance, a relatively small drop in support in the past year.

Exit polling last November showed Bush winning the votes of 93 percent of Republicans, up from his 91 percent showing among Republicans in 2000. In contrast, former Sen. Bob Dole (Kan.), the GOP nominee for president in 1996, drew just 80 percent of Republicans that year, according to exit polls.

Republican support is crucial not only to the president, but also to his party when next year’s midterms roll around — less than 14 months from now.

Elections are first and foremost about each party’s base, and a dispirited GOP that stays home next fall could be disastrous for the Republican Party. (The president needs to keep this in mind when he selects his nominee for the Supreme Court’s second vacancy.)

Increasingly, there are signs of internal division within the GOP camp. Sure, Democratic opposition on Capitol Hill and throughout the country remains intense. But there isn’t much the president can do about that.

If the Republican coalition falls apart between now and November 2006, the party’s majorities on Capitol Hill could be threatened, even with the dearth of competitive House districts and the difficulty of constructing a Democratic Senate takeover scenario.

Fourteen months from the midterm elections, the GOP lacks the kind of uniting agenda that historically has served the party well. Whether it was taxes or national security, Republicans usually have been able to rally around a set of issues that play well with most or all elements of the party.

True, the party’s business wing hasn’t always been comfortable with Capitol Hill Republicans’ social agenda, and there have been divisions between tax-cutters and deficit hawks. But when those sorts of divisions became serious, the party invariably lost.

Now, Republicans are showing signs of deep division. Whether it’s spending and the deficit or immigration or even Iraq, Capitol Hill Republicans, as well as GOP grass-roots activists around the country, can’t seem to agree on much.

The party’s anti-tax activists are increasingly frustrated by their president’s spending initiatives and his refusal to veto Congressional pork. Its large and vocal anti-immigration forces disapprove of Bush’s immigration proposals. The party is divided over Social Security reform (which even insiders agree is absolutely dead) and over what kinds of tax cuts to pursue. Katrina now has a growing number of Republican legislators openly questioning whether to support making permanent tax cuts that already have been enacted.

While Republicans have acted like loyal soldiers for most of the president’s five years in office, they are now sounding mutinous. And as the midterms approach and Bush’s job ratings appear to be an albatross around the party’s neck, GOP officeholders are likely to look for high-profile issues on which to break from Bush, including immigration.

This isn’t only a problem for the president. It’s also a headache for his party. A divided GOP is likely to look increasingly inept, and it also is likely to make the president look ineffectual.

If the party can’t find a way to mobilize all of its elements, weak GOP turnout could produce a midterm electorate that will be more liberal and Democratic than the one that turned out to re-elect Bush.

I’m not suggesting that Democrats have a positive message or agenda of their own that will appeal to the American people. They are recycling the same tired rhetoric that they’ve used — unsuccessfully — for the past couple of decades. But they can count on Democratic animus toward the president to turn out voters next year.

It’s up to Republican Party strategists to try to figure out a couple of issues that will both distinguish the GOP from the Democratic Party and energize and unite Republicans.

Until that happens, 2006 will look ominous for GOP candidates.

For the moment at least, Republicans have met the enemy, and it is them.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.