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“The things government does have to be done better. Those that don’t have to be done should stop being done,” he said.

Hoping for 1994 redux

Even conservatives who believe the idea of smaller government still carries potency with the electorate recognize that the way back to a governing coalition built around that philosophy is not likely to come this election cycle.

Nevertheless, Mr. Gingrich said an Obama presidency and Democratic majority in Congress may lead to a repeat of the 1994 Republican revolution, which he helped lead.

“The challenge Obama will face if he wins is does he really go with [Senate Majority Leader Harry] Reid and [House Speaker Nancy] Pelosi into a left-wing government, in which case, they’re likely to re-create the conditions of 1994, which led to the first Republican majority in 40 years? Or is he going to create a centrist majority?” Mr. Gingrich said.

“There’s every reason to believe the Reid, Pelosi, Obama team is as far to the left as they’ve said. I suspect you’ll see the re-emergence of conservatism very, very rapidly.”

Mr. Frum agreed with Mr. Shakir that on issues such as health care, the nation will be demanding answers.

“If we’re going to seek to limit government, we can’t do it without a credible health care plan, one that does not inflict deteriorating care on people,” Mr. Frum said.

Health care has surpassed taxes, Mr. Frum said, as a burning issue for the public.

“The American people will accept much bigger government than they now have in return for a health care solution. If we can’t think of an attractive solution, we should not be surprised if the country accepts a Democratic offer,” Mr. Frum said.

Mr. Gingrich, who considered a run at the White House this year and is a possible 2012 contender, agreed that Republicans must offer more than a party of naysayers.

“Don’t be the anti-left movement,” he said. “Offer a better vision of better solutions.”

Rep. Mike Pence, Indiana Republican, who has opposed many of the Bush administration’s signature big-spending packages, such as No Child Left Behind, the 2003 Medicare reform and most recently the economic rescue plan, said the conservative values of most Americans “haven’t been given a voice” at the White House or on Capitol Hill.

However, Mr. Pence said, the fact that Mr. McCain is within striking distance of Mr. Obama is “evidence of the resilience of these conservative ideals.”

“If [Mr. Obama’s] liberalism was connecting with the majority of the American people, he’d be ahead by 30 points,” Mr. Pence said.

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