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Republicans Reflect on Past Mistakes And Future Prospects

U.S. Republicans are trying to get used to their new status as the official opposition party, following Barack Obama's victory in last November's presidential election and expanded Democratic majorities in both the Senate and House of Representatives. Republicans are regarding their new status with a mixture of humility, defiance and uncertainty about the future.

The experts like to refer to the Republican's current predicament as wandering in the political wilderness in search of ideas and leadership.

That search came to Washington this week in the form of the Conservative Political Action Conference, a gathering of conservative and Republican political activists from around the country.

Among those taking part was the chairman of the American Conservative Union, David Keene. "We've lost battles and we've won battles over the years, but we have every reason to be optimistic about the future because we've looked at history, we've examined our ideas, we know that what we believe in works and we know that those who would take this society down the wrong road are doomed to failure," he said.

But before the party can move forward, many Republicans believe they need to examine why they failed in the last two national elections.

Paul Ryan is a Republican congressman from Wisconsin who says his party lost its way in recent years by spending too much and letting the budget deficit get out of hand. "But as a conservative, I have got to admit that my party took success for granted. The Republican Party disregarded its roots. It sacrificed principles and it failed to offer a vision relevant to most Americans. You can't get it right if you don't admit the truth," he said.

Ryan is considered a rising star among conservatives within the Republican Party, as is Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal.

Jindal gave the official Republican response to President Obama's recent speech to a joint session of Congress. "Our party got away from its principles. Republicans lost your trust, and rightly so. Our party is determined to regain your trust," he said.

Conservatives realize they are fighting a popular president at a time when opinion polls show Americans want strong government action to address the economic crisis.

Some, but not all, Republicans are trying to unite around the theme that Mr. Obama is pressing for too much government interference in the private sector.

"Obama is proposing a major expansion of federal power in all kinds of areas, and many of his proposals involve spending a lot of money. Most Republicans, and it is an increasing conservative party, especially at the national level, are opposed to all of those things," said Matt Dallek, a political historian at the University of California's Washington Center.

Former House Speaker Newt told the conference that Americans expect Republicans to do more than simply oppose Obama policies. "They are frightened about our economy and they want to see a movement that has positive solutions that would work better than the failed policies of the left," he said.

There are signs that Republicans are looking to broaden their reach as they prepare for the 2010 midterm congressional elections.

Michael Steele has become the first African-American to chair the Republican National Committee, and Steele has vowed to compete for black and Hispanic voters who overwhelmingly supported Barack Obama in November. "We will no longer let others define who we are and what we believe. We will no longer stand for the noise of the left," he said,

Many experts question whether Republicans will be able to regain their footing simply by saying no to Mr. Obama, and whether they are truly committed to broadening the base of the party beyond the southern U.S. states.

"I think Republicans are trying to answer all of those questions as we speak, and I don't think they have come up with any solid answers. They are in the wilderness just on numbers alone. They are at one of the lowest points they have ever been at, at least at the national level in many, many years," said Dallek.

Conservatives often cite former President Ronald Reagan as their political hero and role model. But many are quick to point out that for the moment no one approaching Reagan's stature has appeared to lead the movement out of the political wilderness.