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A Year After Obama, Republicans Take Stock

This story was written by CBSNews.com political reporter Brian Montopoli.

There have been few moments in recent history when things looked worse for Republicans than they did around this time last year.

A popular and groundbreaking Democratic president was formally taking office. Democrats had recently expanded their majorities in the House and Senate. Between the 2006 and 2008 elections, the GOP had lost more than a dozen Senate seats and 50 seats in the House.

The Republican Party "really couldn't get much lower," said Nathan L. Gonzales, political editor at the Rothenberg Political Report.

And then it did: In the coming months, Arlen Specter would switch parties and Al Franken would win the disputed Minnesota Senate race, effectively giving Democrats the 60 votes they needed to pass legislation in the Senate without a single GOP vote.

Now, with President Obama's first year in office coming to a close, both parties are taking stock of their accomplishments. For the GOP, the calculus boils down to one simple question: Have they begun to emerge from their time in the political wilderness?

It's a question that Republicans contacted for this story are answering with optimism, if not confidence. They say that while there has been some positive developments for the GOP, the party still has a long way to go.

CBSNews.com Special Report: Obama's First Year

There has already been some good news for the party in the last year: Republicans went two-for-two in gubernatorial races in New Jersey and Virginia last year.

And then there's the surprisingly close race in Massachusetts, where Republican Scott Brown and Democrat Martha Coakley are fighting to replace the late Sen. Ted Kennedy. Even if Brown falls short in Tuesday's special election, his surprising run has energized Republicans, who have been thrilled to see their party gain real traction in a solidly blue state. If Brown wins, it could energize the GOP to a degree that hasn't been seen in years.

More on the Mass. Race: It's All About Enthusiasm
Brown, Coakley and the Supermajority
Coakley Trails Brown in Bellwether Polls

"The good news for Republicans in Congress is that President Obama's approval ratings have fallen off the edge of the table," said former Republican political strategist Dan Schnur, who now heads the Jesse Unruh Institute of Politics at USC. "The bad news is that none of those numbers have transferred over to the Republicans."

Indeed, while the president's approval rating has fallen to 50 percent in CBS News polling, approval ratings for Republicans in Congress are hovering around just 30 percent.

The Republican strategy in 2009 was grounded in unified opposition to Democrats' ambitious agenda: Whether on health care reform, the stimulus package or cap and trade legislation, the party was vocal in railing against what Republicans deemed Democrats' "job-killing agenda."

With employment lagging even as the economy improves and polls suggesting Americans are skeptical of the president's health care reform efforts, a case can be made that the strategy will be shown to be a smart one. But the decision to stress what the Republicans are against has left many Americans wondering what exactly they're for. Opposing Democrats, Schnur says, isn't enough. "At some point," he says, "they're going to need a broader alternative agenda."

According to Dan Bartlett, a CBS News consultant and former key adviser to President George W. Bush, Republicans should be content to sit on the sidelines - at least for now.

"I've been a strong believer that perception of the opposition party is totally driven by the conduct of the party in power, and particularly the president," he said. "So the challenges that the president is facing - and his drop in popularity - is really more important than any sort of message coming out of the Republican Party."

Bartlett, who says Republicans have been "getting their house in order" over the past year, doesn't mind that the public, as he puts it, is "not turning to Republicans right now to hear their views."

"If you try to force that conversation, it could have negative consequences," he said, adding that GOP candidates should be patient and not feel "like you have to be out there all the time."

It isn't easy for politicians to sit back and hope the other party's problems help them, however. If the economy gets better, most believe the president's approval ratings will as well. And improved perceptions of Democrats could leave the GOP without a compelling message heading into the midterm elections.

More Coverage of Obama's First Year in Office:

Jeff Greenfield: Obama's Decline -- What Caused It?
Poll: Obama Ends First Year with 50% Approval Rating
Photos: Obama's First Year

New York University's Bob Shrum, a longtime Democratic strategist who was a senior advisor to the Kerry-Edwards campaign in 2004, says the GOP must essentially hope an economic recovery doesn't happen.

"Republicans have to be rooting for the economy to not be creating jobs," he said.

In the Virginia gubernatorial race last year, the Republican candidate, Bob McDonnell, was able to devise a winning formula by stressing fiscal restraint instead of social issues. It's a model many expect other Republicans to adopt in the coming midterm elections.

However, there was another contest in 2009 that wasn't a cause for celebration for many Republicans. In upstate New York, a Democrat won a House seat in a district that had long voted Republican largely because an independent candidate affiliated with the far-right Tea Party movement jumped into the race.

"The Tea Party movement represents a real tension between grassroots activists and the party establishment," said Schnur. "The Republican Party is better position to tap into all that outrage than the Democrats, but right now neither party has much of a claim on it."

The outrage represented by the Tea Partiers, according to Mark McKinnon, a veteran strategist and former media adviser to George W. Bush, grew out of Mr. Obama's decision to give voters "a lot of change they didn't want."

That left Republicans with opportunity to capitalize, he argues, because "now they are not the establishment."

But many in the movement, which grew out of the town hall protests against the health care reform effort over the summer, don't seem all that interested in aligning with the GOP. In a recent Rasmussen Reports survey conducted using so-called "robocalls," more Americans said they would back a generic Tea Party candidate (23 percent) than a generic Republican (18 percent). A generic Democrat got 36 percent, while the rest were undecided.

Shrum compares the Republicans' sometimes-awkward embrace of the Tea Partiers, who are generally associated with dogmatic fiscal conservatism, to "going on a bender."

"You're going to wake up the next morning but you have to live with the consequences," he says. According to Shrum, the movement represents "anger and resentment and useless nostalgia for a past that never was."

There are a number of primary battles going on between Tea Party-backed candidates and traditional Republicans around the country: In Illinois, Senate candidate Mark Kirk is trying to fend off the Tea Party-backed Patrick Hughes and others. In the California Senate race, conservative State Assemblyman Chuck DeVore is challenging the GOP's establishment candidate, Carly Fiorina. And in Florida -- perhaps ground zero in the battle for the future of the Republican Party -- tea party darling Marco Rubio is threatening to derail the Senate bit of Gov. Charlie Crist, who had been expected to cruise to the nomination. (That's just for starters.)

Bartlett rejects the implication that the Tea Party movement represents a threat to the GOP.

"If Republicans have activists who are at the core of their party, it's viewed as a hangover," he said sarcastically, in response to Shrum's comment. "But if Democrats have activists at the far left, it's unprecedented excitement for the party."

Still, it seems clear that the Republican Party isn't exactly sure what it wants to be. Newt Gingrich and others say that the party needs to be a "big tent" that accepts moderates if it hopes to take back Congress, and, eventually, the presidency. South Carolina Republican Sen. Jim DeMint, by contrast, would rather embrace the dogmatic ideology of the Tea Partiers wholeheartedly - even if it means risking an expansion of the Democratic majority.

"I would rather have 30 Republicans in the Senate who really believe in principles of limited government, free markets, free people, than to have 60 that don't have a set of beliefs," DeMint told the New York Times magazine. DeMint is backing the insurgent Rubio in Florida over the establishment candidate Crist.

Gonzales, of the Rothenberg Political Report, predicts that Republicans will pick up seats in the 2010 midterm elections, but not enough to take control of either the House (where they need a net gain of 40 seats) or the Senate (where they need eleven).

Yet the GOP is in worse shape than it would like, even without the complications presented by the Tea Partiers: Republican National Committee chair Michael Steele is seen by party insiders as disorganized and less interested in building the party than burnishing his own image, and because of a "spending spree" last year, the RNC is reportedly facing its worst cash flow situation in a decade. That could make a difference in close races.

Still, compared to where the party has been for the last few years, Schnur isn't complaining.

"It's always better to be a mile outside of hell heading out," he said, "then ten miles away heading in."