Republicans tap into energy, but unity is elusive

WASHINGTON — Conservatives seem more fired up than they've been in years, rallying against President Obama. But energy alone won't herald a Republican revolution, and the excitement pulsing through the GOP base masks disputes and divisions the party faces ahead of critical midterm elections.

"I think 2010 is going to be a phenomenal year for the conservative cause, and I think Barack Obama is a one-term president," former Vice President Dick Cheney declared Thursday, making a surprise appearance at an annual gathering of conservatives and earning a raucous reception.

This year's political environment certainly seems unfriendly for the Democrats who control the White House and Congress, and Republicans are poised for big electoral gains following recent statewide victories in Massachusetts, New Jersey and Virginia. Yet, fights within the party could hinder the GOP's prospects come November. So could the lack of both a leader and a message other than anti-Obama.

Along with the right wing's new fervor, the GOP's struggle to find a unified voice was clear from the start of the annual three-day Conservative Political Action Conference — both in the speaker whom organizers chose to deliver the keynote address but also in what he had to say.

"America already has a Democrat Party. It doesn't need two Democrat parties," said Marco Rubio, suggesting that Republicans who don't adhere to certain principles — namely his Senate primary opponent Charlie Crist in Florida — are no different from Democrats. Rubio added: "People want leaders who will come here ... and stand up to this big-government agenda, not be co-opted by it."

In the Senate race that typifies the GOP's identity crisis, Rubio is backed by grassroots groups in his bid against Crist, the establishment-favored governor once considered a shoo-in for the nomination.

Such bitterly contested primaries underscore the challenges facing Republicans.