COLUMBIA, South Carolina (CNN) -- One year to Election Day, and the struggling Republican Party is looking for much more than a new leader.
The battle for the GOP presidential nomination is, in part, a fight to define the post-Bush party.
"It takes time to damage a brand," says South Carolina's Republican governor, Mark Sanford. "It takes even longer to rebuild it."
Sanford is a low-taxes, low-spending type who believes the GOP has lost its credibility as the party of fiscal conservatism.
"The Republican Party, I think, has really been hurt with regard to its brand on the degree to which it will walk the walk on government spending and government taxes," Sanford told CNN in a recent interview at his State Capital office in Columbia.
Others, though, see a threat to the party's brand as the home of social conservatives at risk as well, in part because of what they view as "lip service" by the Bush White House and other leaders in Washington, and, in part, because of the continued strength of Rudy Giuliani in the GOP nomination race.
"I see more anger, more frustration, more of a sense of betrayal by the leaders of the Republican Party in Washington now than I have in the 45 years I have been involved at the national level," veteran conservative activist Richard Viguerie said.
Republican pollster Whit Ayres puts it this way: "There's a lof of soul searching going on -- there was a lot of discouragement over the 2006 results."
Whatever the reason, the brand is clearly in decline.
Just four in 10 Americans have a favorable view of the Republican Party, according to Pew Research center data, down from nearly seven in 10 just after the 1994 elections that swept the GOP to control of Congress.
Also, just 25 percent of Americans identify themselves as Republicans. By comparison, 33 percent identify themselves as Democrats. When independents are pushed to pick a party, the Republican number climbs to 36 percent, but the Democratic number increases to 50 percent -- the largest gap between the parties in 20 years of Pew Center research.
"It is the war. I think it is views about how Bush is running the country and discontent with the status quo," said Pew Center director Andrew Kohut.
The decline is particularly stunning given that the GOP scored historic gains in the first midterm elections of the Bush presidency, and that the goal of Mr. Bush and longtime political adviser Karl Rove was to build a lasting Republican majority.
"He's not the only one to blame," Gov. Sanford said of the president's part in the decline of the GOP brand. "I certainly don't want to suggest that. [But] as much as the presidency, if your party is in power, is the titular head of the Republican Party -- certainly some of the buck stops there."
Whether picking a new leader will by itself bring progress in healing the GOP wounds is in some dispute because of the nature of the primary campaign so far.
"The real challenge for the Republican Party is figuring out how to keep the base happy while at the same time reaching out to the independents who voted Democratic in 2006," said Republican polster Ayres.
At the moment, though, the Republican nominating fight is largely a debate over which candidate is the true conservative -- a contest for the support of the restive conservative base at the expense, at least for now, of any focused courting of independent voters.
Michael Gerson, the former top Bush speechwriter, noted that both Bill Clinton in 1992 and George W. Bush, challenged their party's orthodoxy while seeking the presidential nomination.
In Clinton's case it was with calls for welfare reform and an abandonment of liberal positions on taxes; Mr. Bush struck the theme of "compassionate conservatism" and said some in his party were too quick to dismiss any government role in issues like education.
Asked to assess this year's Republican nomination battle, and its role in the effort to rebuild the GOP brand, Gerson said: "There's something not just uninteresting about it but also something destructive about it." E-mail to a friend
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