HONOLULU Republican leaders burst into applause the other day as their luncheon speaker, Hawaii Gov. Linda Lingle shared the latest analysis by a Washington congressional handicapper: The way things are heading, she read, "you can count on the Democratic majority in the House being toast this fall."
But as the Republican National Committee ended its winter meeting in Hawaii on Saturday, party leaders, if jubilant over a string of election victories and declining support for President Barack Obama, were also questioning whether they could take full advantage of the opening Democrats had handed them.
At a moment of what appears to be great if unexpected opportunity, the GOP continues to struggle with disputes over ideology and tactics, as well as what party leaders say is an absence of strong figures to lead it back to power, from the party chairman to prospective presidential candidates.
From a sunny perch 5,000 miles from chilly Washington, the party leaders watched Republican members of Congress try to keep their balance as Obama sought to reclaim the mantle of reasonable bipartisanship in his State of the Union address on Wednesday night and his remarkable public debate in Baltimore with House members on Friday.
At stake, they knew, was the heart of the strategy they had pursued for the last year and had intended to carry into the midterm elections: remaining unified to block the White House at every turn, rallying the conservative base but leaving Republicans vulnerable to being portrayed as the obstructionist party.
"We have the wind at our back," said Katon Dawson, the former chairman of the S.C. Republican Party. "We just have to find our momentum."
Overall, it is almost surely better being the Republican Party as the 2010 election approaches. The Republican victory in the Massachusetts Senate race was a boost to party spirits and an opportunity to press the case that Obama had fundamentally misread the electorate.
But as the president was quick to point out, with a 41st vote in the Senate and the ability to block legislation through filibuster come pressure on Republicans to share in the political risks of making hard choices. "The responsibility to govern is now yours as well," Obama said in his State of the Union speech.
Christopher Healy, the chairman of the Connecticut Republican Party, said Republicans were justified in blocking what he described as a drastic overreaching by Obama. Still, Healy acknowledged that Republicans had to be careful about being seen as overly partisan and would now be under increasing pressure to offer a competing vision of governing.
"We can't be just about saying no," he said. "But we have not completed the transition yet from defeated incumbent party. We have to position ourselves as an alternative and create enthusiasm for our positions."
Many of the obstacles facing Republicans were on display in Honolulu. Party chairman Michael Steele is an unsettling figure within his own party, as became clear when Lingle offered a public reprimand to party members for criticizing Steele, if anonymously, to reporters. "Please don't do a rebuke in my home state of Hawaii, not to my friend Michael Steele," she said, as her audience rustled.
Republicans have expressed concern about Steele's very high profile and often combative style, as well as his propensity to say intemperate things, like predicting that Republicans would not win the majority in the House this November.
For his part, Steele defended his chairmanship and made clear that he intended to seek re-election when his term ended next year.
With Obama seeking to strike a different tone at the beginning of his second year in office, Republicans in Washington were responding with conciliatory phrases, if not yet substantive compromises.
But in Honolulu, the strains within the party over conservative principles versus political pragmatism played out in a sharp and public way, especially as the party establishment struggled to deal with the demands of the Tea Party movement. Republican leaders succeeded in derailing a resolution proposed by conservatives that would have required candidates to agree to a list of conservative positions to get party support.
Steele, in an interview, disputed any suggestion that the Tea Party movement was a problem for his party. "I don't see it as a rivalry," he said. "What I'm saying is we want to be your partner in the same fight."