WASHINGTON — A day after their worst electoral drubbing in more than three decades, Republicans began a difficult and potentially divisive search for a path out of a dark political wilderness.
And with the fall of John McCain and President Bush from the top of the party, a debate is emerging among competing GOP factions over who should pick up the Republican standard.
Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, whose positions on abortion and gun rights helped energize the Republican base during the presidential campaign, has already been embraced by many social conservatives.
Others, including champions of small government, see hope in Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal or Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty. Some in the shrinking moderate wing of the party are looking to Florida Gov. Charlie Crist.
Also contending for party leadership could be former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who both lost bids for the GOP presidential nomination this year, as well as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
But as Republicans struggle to come to terms with their status as a powerless party in Washington, it is not clear how the GOP will define itself, let alone who will lead it.
"Everybody understands that we are going to go through a period of reexamining our identity," said Kevin Madden, a former aide to House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) who worked on Romney's presidential campaign.
"We are going to have to figure out how to rebuild the greater coalition of Republicans and independents and conservative Democrats on issues that really matter to voters," Madden said.
That could be even more difficult as Republicans try to reestablish themselves in opposition to the new president. Barack Obama appropriated GOP messages about taxes and reform during the presidential campaign and may not push as liberal an agenda as many Republicans hope.
"Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid may go off the deep end," said veteran GOP strategist Tony Fabrizio, referring to the Democratic House speaker and Senate majority leader. "But Obama is a very, very skillful politician. Why do we think he will suddenly become a dope . . . by lurching to the left?"
Amid the hand-wringing Wednesday, conservative thinkers who helped fashion the Republican rise to power a decade ago were already moving to shape the debate about renewing it.
In newspaper opinion pieces and online essays, they heaped scorn on Bush and congressional Republican leaders for expanding government, driving up the national debt and abandoning the core small-government principles of the party.
"The party that we have supported has betrayed us and abandoned us," said Richard Viguerie, a leading architect of the modern conservative political movement.
Viguerie and others have been particularly critical of the recently enacted financial bail-out pushed by the Bush administration and senior Democrats and Republicans in Congress.
On Capitol Hill, Nevada Sen. John Ensign, who led the Republican senatorial campaign committee, also attributed many of the year's defeats to the loss of the party's fiscal message. "We lost our way on the fundamentals that define Republicans," he said after returns came in Tuesday night.
In the House, where Republicans also suffered heavy losses Tuesday, fiscally conservative lawmakers were already moving Wednesday to take over leadership positions in the conference.
The same representatives, led by Texas Rep. Jeb Hensarling, spearheaded Republican opposition to the bailout last month -- and may soon get the chance to fight a new Democratic stimulus proposal.
Viguerie and others expressed confidence that Bush's departure in January would help the party return to its roots.
"We're finally untethered from the big-government conservatism that defined the Bush administration," said Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), a leading champion of cutting federal spending.
Flake also urged the party to move away from so-called wedge issues, such as immigration, which Republican strategists historically looked to for an electoral advantage.
"That has not served our party well," Flake said.
Yet many social issues remain important to broad swaths of the Republican base also vying to set the party's agenda.
And many are looking to Palin to take up their cause. "She is our angel," said the Rev. Lou Sheldon, who heads the Traditional Values Coalition.
Sheldon pointed Wednesday to the success of California's Proposition 8 banning gay marriage as one of the great victories on election day and a hopeful sign of what an energized grassroots conservative movement can accomplish.
Frank Luntz, a Republican strategist whose clients have included former New York mayor and presidential candidate Rudolph. W. Giuliani, warned that a swing right would be disastrous.
"If the Republican Party is a right-wing party, it cannot win. It has to transcend ideology to address the common-sense problems with common-sense solutions," Luntz said. "This is a center-right country, not a right-wing one."
The caution was echoed by Maryland Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, who this spring lost a primary fight to a more conservative Republican challenger.
"When I listen to [conservative hosts] Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity," Gilchrest said, "I know this is not the party that I grew up in."