MEMPHIS, Tenn. – Republicans are already looking beyond the embattled Bush presidency to the 2008 campaign.
Nearly 2,000 GOP activists are attending a weekend conference to hear from presidential prospects and share strategies on a conservative agenda many believe Washington has forsaken.
One highlight will be a straw poll to test the popularity of White House hopefuls including those in attendance — Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, Sen. George Allen of Virginia, Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee.
But the straw poll is unlikely to have a lasting impact unless Frist, who has packed the Southern Republican Leadership Conference with supporters, hurts his presidential aspirations with a poor showing.
The dynamic to watch is how far the speakers and conference attendees distance themselves from President Bush and the Republican-led Congress while urging the party to return to its conservative values.
Despite controlling the White House and Congress for most of the past five years, many Republicans feel both have fallen short on a number of issues including tax reform, fiscal responsibility, immigration, Social Security and family values.
"A big problem with our base is our spending," said Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who is sometimes mentioned as a presidential prospect. "My time at this convention will be spent talking about a Republican Party that (GOP activists) are familiar with — a party of controlling the size of government and reforming the government."
"If we don't have a program that reforms taxes and controls spending different from the Democrats, a lot of people will sit out the next election as Republicans," he warned. "We're dangerously close ... to having a deflated base."
Brownback, a favorite of social conservatives, said runaway spending is a problem for Republicans but so is a failure to produce innovative plans on health care, energy, the environment and rebuilding the American family.
"I think people are searching for new ideas on serious problems that move us together rather than apart," he said of GOP activists. "I think they want somebody who can put forward ideas that have a reasonable chance of broad-based support."
That doesn't speak well for Bush or the GOP leaders in Congress. "People are kind of, `Well, I wonder what other people can do,"' Brownback said.
Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., said such talk is part of the natural cycle of politics. Second-term presidents always compete for attention with a gaggle of would-be successors.
"We're beginning the process of that separation that goes on when we're trying to pass the baton from one administration to the next," said Cole, a former political strategist.
"There's always a painful sorting out period, but the Republican Party has to look for new leaders."
The restlessness is also fueled by polls. An AP-Ipsos survey shows that just 37 percent of people approve of Bush's performance and a mere 31 percent give the GOP-led Congress high marks.
Underscoring Graham's point about a deflated base, the president's job approval among Republicans has dropped 8 percentage points to 74 percent since February, the poll showed. More than half of Republicans disapprove of Congress' performance.
"It's the winter of our discontent," Cole said.
Huckabee said he's not too worried about the polls — "Nowhere to go but up," he joked. But the Arkansas governor hopes to lift the spirits of activists with his Saturday address. "It's an opportunity to rally the party to a very important midterm election," he said.
Republicans stand to lose their majority in the nation's governorships in November. While losing control of the House and Senate are less likely, the prospect is no longer out of the question because of the war in Iraq and a growing anti-Washington sentiment among voters.
As for the straw poll this weekend, Frist's team has worked feverishly to drum up votes. Perhaps half of the attendees are from Tennessee.
"If he loses, there's a bigger problem because he should win," said Frist adviser Jim Dyke.
In March of 1998, the equivalent point in the 2000 presidential campaign cycle, then-Texas Gov. George Bush narrowly won the SRLC's straw poll despite his absence from the event.
McCain and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani are the most popular potential GOP candidates for 2008, according to most polls. Giuliani is not attending this conference.
McCain and Romney were speaking Friday. Allen, Brownback, Huckabee and Frist speak Saturday, the day of the straw poll.
"I think straw polls would be left for the year of the election and for people who need to emerge," said McCain adviser Rick Davis. "John McCain emerged a long time ago."