WASHINGTON -- The Republican Party could very well be on the verge of a political comeback in 2010. They've seen some recent success at the ballot box in Virginia, New Jersey, and even liberal Massachusetts.
However, voters still aren't sold on the identity of the party and more importantly whether it will back up its conservative principles with actions rather than just words. So what exactly is the state of the GOP?
For conservatives, the era of President Ronald Reagan was the glory years. Nowadays, it's more like "the wonder years," because voters are wondering what the GOP really stands for.
Michael Steele, chairman of the Republican Party, understands that while Republican leadership has preached conservative values of fiscal discipline, they sure haven't practiced it. From reckless spending, deficits, earmarks and bailouts under the Bush administration, the party has an image and trust problem.
"We need to re-establish credibility with the folks out there," Steele told CBN News. "They're looking at us and saying 'Okay, we see what these guys (the Democrats) are doing. We get what change is. We don't like that. We don't want that. What are you going to do and if you start to do it is it going to be the same old same old that you were doing before? Because if it is we don't want that.'"
In a large way, the Tea Party movement has formed because of broken promises by Republicans. Many Tea Party activists are disgruntled conservatives and fiscally minded Independents who have soured on the GOP.
Republican conservatives like Jim Bopp from Indiana understand the Tea Party frustration.
"Conservatism has universal appeal. The problem is that too many people don't believe that we really will be conservative," Bopp told CBN News.
Meanwhile, polls suggest that even Republicans themselves are questioning their own party.
A recent Rasmussen poll shows that 75 percent of Republican voters believe Republicans in Congress have lost touch with GOP voters throughout the nation over the past several years. Just 21 percent of them think their legislators have done a good job representing party values.
So here's the looming question: If the party gets back to their conservative principles and sticks to them, will that alienate moderates and will the GOP be able to win elections that way?
The Reagan Resolution
The future of the GOP is playing out in states like Massachusetts and even in Hawaii where Republicans recently met to discuss the fate and future of the party. Will it go in a more conservative direction or be a bigger tent for moderates?
In Hawaii, Republicans discussed whether the Republican National Committee should dole out money only to Republican candidates who adhere to certain conservative principles on a list. But the idea didn't have enough support to pass. It was called the Reagan Resolution.
While Steele is committed to conservative principles, he also knows that winning elections means you have to be a little flexible too.
"I think Ronald Reagan would not be very accepting of something that has people standing at the door with a clipboard to check to see if you qualify," Steele said. "I don't want the party to be in the situation where we're picking and choosing who qualifies to be in. Then you're like an exclusive club."
"That's why I say you, put your principles out there first and the people who want to belong will be attracted by those principles and they will join you," he said. "And you don't have the fear of who's coming in the door because you know they're coming in because they align themselves with those principles."
Conservatives, meanwhile, are wondering where to draw the line.
For example, many of them are tired of seeing the RNC spend money to re-elect RINOs( Republicans In Name Only). Bopp said past Republican moderates like Sen. Lincoln Chaffee and Sen. Arlen Specter are perfect examples.
"When the party supports them, it demonstrates that we don't care about our views," Bopp said. "I mean we're giving money (to those) who disagree with us. People that would vote for Obama's socialist agenda we're supporting with our money. Well that means we're not serious."
Getting serious is a common theme heard within Republican circles. After all, a bunch of broken promises over the years by Republican politicians inside the beltway has led to this current Tea Party revolt.
Former GOP leader Dick Armey is now one of the Tea Party's main organizers. He came to the RNC meetings in Hawaii at the request of conservative members who want to get the party back on the conservative track.
GOP Identity Crises
Armey pulled no punches when speaking about the Republican Party to conservative RNC members.
"Bless their heart," Armey said. "They go through more identity crises than the average college sophomore. They just don't seem to be able to understand and stay consistently devoted to who they are."
That is a stark reality check from one of their own.
"We think of the Republican party as being on probation," Armey told CBN News, "We don't particularly care to hang around with people who are making insincere promises to fulfill their political objectives."
He added, "If they don't understand the ideas are bigger than the man, the idea is bigger than the party, the idea is bigger than the moment, then we're not particularly willing to be with them and give them the sense of our endorsement."
Going for Moderates
It also means that when Republican leaders go out and start endorsing moderate Senate Republican candidates like Carly Fiorina in California or Charlie Crist in Florida, they are to a degree shooting themselves in the political foot.
That's because GOP leadership is not endorsing a true blue conservative underdog and less financed challengers in those races like Chuck DeVore in California and Marco Rubio in Florida. Those two candidates have been more in line with conservative principles over the year.
It's why conservative Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., has set up a Political Action Committee ready and willing to dish out money to true conservative Republican candidates.
"I need some new Republicans. People who believe in constitutional government, a balanced budget and liberty," DeMint told CBN News. "And so I'm out across the country recruiting new Republicans who I think, if they get here, will not only challenge the institutions of government, but be willing to even challenge the Republican Party and our leadership if they feel like we're going in the wrong direction."
"The problem here in the Republican Party is not that our base has gone to the right," he continued. "The problem in the Republican Party is that the leadership has gone to the left and the Tea Parties and the Republicans out across the country are right there where American principles have always been. And I'm trying to pull the party back to the mainstream of where America really is."
It leaves one unanswered question: Can a return to a principled conservative Republican Party be an electoral winner in 2010 and beyond?
Americans should start getting answers in November.
*Originally published February 25, 2010.