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GOP faces identity crisis in months ahead

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  • Obama's win leaves GOP in search of identity, new leader
  • GOP chairman: Republican party's future depends on how Obama governs
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By John King
CNN Chief National Correspondent
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NEW YORK (CNN) -- The Republican Party faces a long list of problems with no clear national leader and an identity crisis that will play out during a period of good will for the first African-American elected president.

Barack Obama not only won a clear majority of the votes Tuesday night, but he won with a coalition that dramatically recolored the Electoral College map and creates an opportunity for Democrats to have the upper hand after a long period of Republican electoral dominance.

It is the combination of Obama's success among young voters and Latino voters that many Republican strategists see as particularly troubling to their party's long-term health.

"We learned from the Ronald Reagan years how generational support for a candidate can ripple through the demographics for years to come," said one leading GOP strategist close to the McCain campaign.

In other words, young voters who were attracted to Reagan in 1980 remained loyal to Republicans as they aged, providing the base on the party's presidential success over the past 25 years. Video Watch how Obama won in GOP country »

In digesting Obama's 67 percent to 31 percent edge over McCain among Latino voters, this strategist said, "We've got to get a handle on these voters before they turn completely. They have become increasingly the key to a number of critical swing states."

That assessment rang true as New Mexico, Colorado and Nevada were all carried by Obama on Tuesday.

Republican National Committee Chairman Mike Duncan said a good deal of where the GOP goes from here depends on how President-elect Obama governs. Duncan drew historical analogies to when Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton took office, in 1977 and 1993, respectively, in making the case that Obama might overstep his mandate.

"The success of his presidency will depend on his ability to force Nancy Pelosi, Charlie Rangel, Barney Frank and Ted Kennedy to the center," Duncan said. "If he can't, well, we look forward to the mid-term elections. The last two times Democrats controlled the House, Senate and the presidency, they choked on the bone of responsibility. They lurched far to the left and introduced the country to President Ronald Reagan and Speaker Newt Gingrich."

In both cases, the GOP had leaders in waiting -- Reagan had come up short in a challenge to then-President Ford in 1976 and was a conservative favorite, and Gingrich emerged as a leading critic of Democratic policy during the Clinton administration from his perch in the House Republican leadership.

Five senior GOP strategists, when asked late Tuesday who they now view as their party's leader, had similar answers. Video Watch more on the GOP's next moves »

"No one," was the response of two. "Don't have one," said a third.

"Six or eight people think it is them, but no one else agrees," said a longtime party veteran.

"Damned if I know," said the fifth.

It will immediately be a subject of sharp debate. Video Watch what went wrong for McCain »

Conservative activists are meeting in Washington this week to debate the party's future. GOP governors will also meet for a post-election meeting in Miami next week that will involve a great deal of public and private soul-searching. iReport.com: McCain supporter speaks out

A number of prominent Republicans are vying for high profiles.

Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, despite her roller-coaster campaign performance, proved she has a populist and conservative base. Video Watch Palin discuss future plans »

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney was an active campaigner for McCain and other GOP candidates after he dropped out of the Republican presidential race and has built up a loyal following.

Gingrich also plans to have a higher profile in the weeks and months ahead in promoting policy alternatives to the Obama administration.

As they studied the debris Wednesday, some Republicans took solace in the knowledge that it could have been worse.

Predictions of losing more than 30 House seats did not come true, and with a few races still up in the air, it appeared likely that Democratic Senate gains would fall shy of the 60 votes needed to cut off debate and prevent a filibuster from stalling key debates.

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"I feel like Republicans dodged a bullet last night,' said Republican pollster Whit Ayres, who said the climate now looked strikingly similar to the early days of the Clinton administration.

"After that election, Democrats held 57 Senate and 258 House seats," Ayres said. "Two years later, we took both houses back."

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