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With voters divided, GOP shows strength

By Ed Rollins, CNN Senior Political Contributor
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Poll shows American voters are as polarized as people are in Washington
  • Ed Rollins says Republicans have bounced back after being written off as ineffective
  • He says Palin has become star of GOP, but others are getting support
  • Rollins says real focus needs to be on winning House, Senate seats.

Editor's note: Ed Rollins, a senior political contributor for CNN, is senior presidential fellow at the Kalikow Center for the Study of the American Presidency at Hofstra University. He was White House political director for President Reagan and chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee.

New York (CNN) -- The political campaign season is off and running, whether you're ready or not. According to the latest CNN poll, registered voters share the polarization that now rules Washington.

Nearly as many voters hold unfavorable opinions about each of the three political entities tested as favorable ones. Democrats are liked by 49 percent of voters and disliked by 46 percent. My party is equally liked and disliked: Republicans have a 46 percent favorable and 46 percent unfavorable rating, a major improvement from where we were a year ago.

And the political rage of the moment, the Tea Party, has a 38 percent favorable and 36 percent unfavorable rating. But as proof that the Tea Party is an unpredictable force that may stay around for a while, the newest Rasmussen poll showed that 24 percent of U.S. voters now say they consider themselves a part of the Tea Party movement. That's an 8-point increase from a month ago.

The leaders in Congress, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, have terrible numbers, with only 38 percent having a favorable opinion of the speaker and the majority leader fighting for his re-election life at a pathetic 28 percent favorable rating.

Video: Can GOP embrace Tea Party?
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And what makes this midterm, just six months away, even more unpredictable are the independents and the Tea Party. Do they vote Republican and, if so, give us big wins, or do they vote against incumbents regardless of party? Or in some cases run as a third party and really create havoc?

Reid's latest strategy is to split the vote among several candidates and win with less than 50 percent of the vote. Nevada also has a none-of-the-above on every ballot, which might be very popular this year.

Even at last week's most important Republican event this year, the Southern Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans (held every four years before the midterm elections), nearly every speaker tried to relate to the Tea Party movement. The leader of the Republican Party (at least for the time being), Michael Steele, addressed the 3,500 attendees by apologizing for making mistakes.

Now, I don't know whether those mistakes were spending enormous sums on private jets for the chairman's travel or the repeated blunders of his fundraising team, who continue to agitate the party's religious base by paying a $2,000 bar tab at a bondage strip club in Hollywood or allowing an 800 sex number to inadvertently be put on a party fundraiser mailer.

It's also not the best strategy to have your lieutenants circulate a letter trying to get at least one-third of the members of the national committee to support your continued leadership by blocking any impeachment efforts.

Steele has survived for now, but the plank he stands on is getting mighty thin, and the tolerance level of donors and his committee has been stretched quite far.

Mitt Romney continued to show that he can win straw polls. Even though he didn't show up at the Republican conference, his "Evangelicals for Mitt" organization managed to squeak out a one-vote victory over that pesky Ron Paul. If Romney and his highly paid team ever figures out how to win primaries and delegates instead of using his staff to win straw polls, he might end up a contender.

Newt Gingrich was popular building a grass-roots base for a run in 2012. And Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour had the most words of wisdom. "Don't blow 2010" was his message, and as one of the great party chairmen and someone who won the majorities back in 1994, when he speaks, we should all listen. (Full disclosure; he was a principal on my staff in the Reagan White House.)

But the star of the show was the $12 million woman (her reported income since resigning in July), former governor and former veep candidate and forever media star Sarah Palin. The party's grass-roots love her, whether they are Tea Party activists or conservative loyalists, and they love her like no other.

While John McCain struggles with a conservative challenge to get renominated back in Arizona, she is now the darling of the conservatives.

Palin's return is good news for Tina Fey. Fey is back too, and her Saturday night parody of Palin last week was hilarious. But Republicans had better play nice with her -- Palin, not Fey -- or she will put them out to sea on an igloo.

One year ago today, the Republican Party was on the ropes with little hope of survival. The media had written us off. Democrats controlled both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue and with that newfound empowerment were pretty cocky. The Republican Party was disillusioned and was being categorized as a party of fat old white men with only a Southern base.

President Obama and his team were being praised for having run one of the most effective campaigns in history, and that contrasted with McCain having run one of the worst. The Obama Democrats were going to be the party of the next generation in new voters and campaign and communication skills, and Republicans couldn't keep up. And if you wanted to get in a fight at a fancy New York dinner party, all you had to say was "I kind of like Sarah Palin!" and World War III would break out.

A lot can happen in a year. Republicans have become a true opposition party. And saying no and voting against programs they think are wrong and irresponsible has re-energized them and their base.

But now is the hard part. Republicans have awakened the Democrats and put them on notice that they are back and ready for the next battle.

The real question is: Can Obama re-energize his base of support? He still can beat any Republican in a hypothetical matchup as badly as he did McCain. But the presidential election of 2012 is a long way off.

Right now, Republicans have to focus on winning House and Senate seats, one at a time, and that's not easy. But most of all, we can't get overconfident and start predicting majorities. Two hundred days until Election Day is a long time, and we must make sure we don't keep making mistakes or spike the ball on the one-yard line rushing in for a touchdown.

Notably, the most popular Republican and most popular Democrat aren't running for anything. The best numbers in the new CNN poll are held by Mike Huckabee, not running for anything as far as I know (disclosure: I was Huckabee's national campaign chairman in the 2008 race), and Hillary Clinton, more popular than ever. Maybe that's a future race.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ed Rollins.