Stevens bids adieu; GOP looks ahead

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Sen. Ted Stevens, the longest-serving Republican in the Senate, gave an emotional goodbye Thursday to the body he served for 40 years, signaling the end of an era for the Republican Party on the same day that a new poll shows the party’s popularity at historic lows.

“My motto has been here: To hell with politics, just do what is right for Alaska,” Stevens said during his 10-minute floor speech, a day after conceding defeat in his bid for an eighth term.

Stevens, who never shied from his desire secure for pork-barrel spending projects for his state, conceded defeat Wednesday to Democratic challenger Mark Begich after the latest count of absentee and questioned ballots from the Nov. 4 election widened the Anchorage mayor’s lead to 3,724 votes.

Even if Stevens had won, he still faced expulsion from the Senate after his October conviction in federal court for concealing gifts from an oil-services company.

So as the 85-year-old lawmaker walks away from the post that he has held since 1968, Republican approval polls remained in a free fall, suggesting that voters increasingly are tired of a party that is seen as having turned its back on fiscal responsibility in favor of widespread misuse of power.

A new Gallup Poll shows that just 34 percent of Americans have a favorable view of the Republican Party, as its leaders sought to redesign a conservative agenda aimed at winning back disaffected party members and independents.

“After suffering major blows in the election, the Republican Party is experiencing its worst image rating in a least a decade,” the Gallup Poll reported Thursday, with a whopping 61 percent of Americans holding an unfavorable view of the Republican Party.

The poll, conducted Nov. 13 to 16, found that the party’s anemic favorability rating has fallen by an additional six points, down from 40 percent in mid-October. Democrats, on the other hand, had a favorability rating of 55 percent, about the same as last month. Notably, 91 percent of Democrats approved of their party compared with just 78 percent of Republicans. The nationwide poll had a three-percentage-point margin of error.

Republican lawmakers, still smarting from the election beating, said the poll confirms that Republicans’ need to recommit itself to core conservative values of limited government and national security.

“I think we, as a party, need to restate our principles and stick with them - which are maintaining fiscal responsibility, maintaining a government that’s affordable, maintaining a strong commitment to national defense,” said Republican Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, after learning of the country’s low esteem for his party.

The survey showed that a majority of Republican voters - 59 percent - want the party to become more conservative while 28 percent want it to remain on the same ideological path. Just 12 percent endorse a less conservative Republican Party. Independents divided evenly over how the Republican Party should veer, with 35 percent saying it should be more conservative and 35 percent saying it should be less conservative.

But Republican officials remained optimistic that they eventually will turn around their declining poll numbers when the economy comes under the watch of President-elect Barack Obama, who takes office in January.

“We’ve only got one way to go and that’s up,” said Katon Dawson, South Carolina’s Republican state chairman and a candidate for the Republican National Committee chairmanship.

“A couple of election losses in 2006 and 2008 sometimes make you reflect on how you need to change as an institution. We didn’t get our message out in the way we should have, but I’m encouraged by the opportunities I see in the future.”

Other Republican state chairmen said the falling approval rating reconfirmed that the party had to begin to rebuild its ranks by recruiting better candidates and staking out positions on issues that appeal to its conservative base as well as to independents and swing voters.

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