Republican leaders burst into applause here the other day as their luncheon speaker, Gov. Linda Lingle of Hawaii, 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 here on Saturday, party leaders, if jubilant over a string of election victories and declining support for President 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 Republican Party 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 Mr. 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 of no.
“We have the wind at our back,” said Katon Dawson, the former chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party. “We just have to find our momentum.”
Over all, 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 Mr. 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,” Mr. Obama said in his State of the Union speech, a message that was certainly heard by party leaders here in Honolulu.
Christopher C. Healy, the chairman of the Connecticut Republican Party, said Republicans were justified in blocking what he described as a drastic overreaching by Mr. Obama. Still, Mr. 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. The party chairman, Michael Steele, is an unsettling figure within his own party, as became clear when Ms. Lingle offered a public reprimand to party members for criticizing Mr. 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 with discomfort.
Republicans have expressed concern about Mr. 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.
Nick Ayers, the executive director of the Republican Governors Association, said he issued a plea similar to Ms. Lingle’s to party members in a private session. He said he was startled at how members were grousing about Mr. Steele, describing it as counterproductive when he was looking to make big gains in races for governor.
For his part, Mr. Steele defended his chairmanship and made clear that he intended to seek re-election when his term ended next year. “My style is not something you get used to very easily,” he said. “I know that.” This took place at a sometimes contentious news conference — “Get your facts right,” Mr. Steele instructed one reporter — that had Republicans wincing at this latest example of Mr. Steele’s sometimes unvarnished ways.
With Mr. Obama seeking to strike a different tone at the beginning of his second year in office, Republicans back in Washington were responding with conciliatory phrases, if not yet substantive compromises.
“We’re not always going to agree, but I think it did become clear in the conversation today with the president that there are issues and items that we do agree upon,” Representative John A. Boehner of Ohio, the Republican House leader, said Friday after the session with the president in Baltimore. Mr. Boehner suggested that the two parties pull out of complicated legislation smaller items they could agree on and vote together on those.
But here 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, led by James Bopp Jr. of Indiana, which would have required candidates to agree to a list of conservative positions to get party support.
But the intensity of the divisions was put on display as Mr. Bopp and Bob Tiernan, the Republican chairman from Oregon, quarreled before reporters over whether the watered-down compromise had any real force.
Mr. Bopp insisted that it did, and Mr. Tiernan insisted that it did not, repeating himself and interrupting Mr. Bopp until Mr. Bopp turned to him and said, “Shut up!”
Mr. 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.”
In cases where contested primaries pit Tea Party candidates against establishment Republicans, Mr. Steele said he expected both sides to come together to support the victor.
“If a Republican incumbent or a Republican candidate is running and a Tea Party candidate is in the race and the Republican wins, my expectation is that the Tea Party guy is going to support the Republican,” he said. “Because we would support the Tea Party guys.”
But Dick Armey, a former House majority leader who has become a leader of the Tea Party movement, suggested that it might be unwise for the Republican Party to count on Tea Party support.
“This is not a situation where the grass-roots activists are saying, ‘What can we do to make ourselves attractive to the Republicans?’ ” he said. “It is ‘What can we do to help the Republicans understand what they must do to be attractive to us.’ ”
Considering it was the grass-roots movement that helped lift Scott Brown to victory in the Massachusetts Senate race, losing that source of support would be a setback Mr. Steele presumably would not welcome at what would seem to be such an auspicious moment for his party.