A GOP comeback strategy

FRANK LUNTZ is a Republican pollster whose clients have included Rudolph W. Giuliani and Michael R. Bloomberg. His latest book is "Words That Work: It's Not What You Say, It's What People Hear."

ALL THE BIG questions for 2008 are on the Democratic side: Can Hillary Clinton show her humanity? Does Obama have enough experience? Will Edwards find a cheaper barber?

But there is one big question that has hardly been asked at all, mostly because it threatens to upset the narrative of the best election in decades: Do Republicans have any chance whatsoever of winning the White House in 2008? Given the extraordinary unpopularity of the Bush administration, isn’t the Democratic candidate, whoever he or she ultimately is, going to be a shoo-in?

The simple answer is that it doesn’t look good for the Republicans. A GOP victory is not absolutely out of the question, of course, but getting there would take a forward-looking agenda, unparalleled message discipline, a strict focus on the millions of independent voters, an innovative candidate and campaign and a lot of luck.

In other words, don’t bet on it.

The Republican failure in the 2006 midterm elections was catastrophic — and the situation is even worse today for the party. Consider the following three “leading indicators” of how the country will vote:

• The electorate is the most pessimistic in a generation. Just 19% of Americans believe that the country is headed in the right direction, while 75% believe that things are “off on the wrong track,” according to a “CBS News” national survey conducted last month. Most of the country is in a nasty, irritable mood, and incumbent parties are historically tossed out of power when expectations turn so ugly.

• The president’s approval ratings are barely hovering in the upper 20s, an all-time low, having plummeted since his reelection less than three years ago. In the last 50 years, only Richard Nixon had a lower approval score. And not since Harry Truman in 1948 has a political party maintained the White House with an incumbent so personally unpopular.

• When asked what party they will vote for in the 2008 presidential election — a “generic ballot” question that does not include any candidate names — voters choose the Democrats by a sizable 18 percentage points, according to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey. We haven’t seen such a one-party advantage since the Watergate era.

In the last 50 years, the political party in power has lost control of the White House six times (out of 12 elections). In none of those cases — zero — have the numbers been as bad for the incumbent party as they are today. For a Republican nominee to win in 2008, he would need an upset even greater than the one that propelled Truman back into office in 1948.

Still, a Republican victory is not impossible. Not yet. One promising indicator is the fact that Congress is at its lowest approval point in a generation — even lower than in 1994, when Republicans seized the majority in the House after 40 years of Democratic control.

The Democrats blew into Washington in 2006 as a breath of fresh air in response to Republican scandal, Republican budget mismanagement and a Republican war. But in recent weeks, that freshness has turned stale. Despite majorities in both houses, Congress is seen as having failed to set tough ethics standards, failed to stop wasteful spending and failed to fix immigration.

And those failures offer a glimmer of hope for the GOP.

Anger and frustration toward politicians is even greater than it was in 1992, when Ross Perot won nearly 20% of the popular vote as a third-party candidate. Americans are fed up (tired is too soft a characterization) with Washington, fed up with the noise and static, with the lack of common sense and with nothing ever getting done. If a Republican candidate empathizes with and embraces the fed-up nation, that’s step one.

Step two is to develop a message of hope — offering a vision for what America can and should be rather than simply a litany of what has gone wrong. In every focus group I have conducted in the last two years, I’ve heard the same conclusion again and again: “Don’t tell us what George W. Bush did wrong. Tell us what you will do right. Don’t talk about the past. Tell us about the future.”

Step three is to be authentic. A message of hope from a Republican does not need to be yet another rehashing of President Reagan’s “shining city on a hill” theme. It is a mistake to assume that you can recapture a mood that has long since gone by. In plain English, the Republican candidate should seek to lead like Reagan, not be Reagan.

The final step is to win Ohio. To be perfectly blunt, no Republican can win the White House without winning Ohio. Although readers of this column would no doubt like to see and hear the presidential nominees up close, the reality is that California, at least when it comes to elections, is as blue as the Pacific. A successful Republican candidate in Ohio will have learned how to articulate a culturally conservative message fused with government accountability and economic opportunity specifically tailored to voters in the industrial heartland. Without the support of the anxious working class, Ohio will also turn deep blue. And so will the United States.

The success of the Republican Party since 1980 was to eschew definition or brand. Whatever hopes, dreams and aspirations people saw in themselves were seen in the Republican Party. That’s all gone now. The Democrats didn’t win in 2006. The GOP lost. And for the party to keep the White House in 2008, it will require a Herculean effort.

Yes, it could happen. No, don’t count on it.