And Anchor Rising, a conservative Web site, has given the right a foothold in the Rhode Island blogosphere. "The important thing right now," said Justin Katz, Anchor's blogger-in-chief, "is to build that structure so when people say, 'I've had enough,' there's somewhere to go."
MOVING TO THE MIDDLE
But the rise of a conservative vanguard will not necessarily translate into electoral gains for the Republican Party. Indeed, many of the grassroots types seem unconvinced that an anemic GOP is the best vehicle for political realignment.
Colleen Conley, coordinator of the Rhode Island Tea Party protest, said the organization she hopes to create in the wake of that event would be willing to endorse any candidate — regardless of party — who takes a "no new taxes" pledge and adheres to conservative budgeting principles.
And O'Neill, the Rhode Island State-wide Coalition board member who defeated Montalbano, ran as an independent. "There's a joke," he said, in parts of his district, "that voting for an independent is a venal sin, but voting for a Republican is a mortal sin."
Moreover, it is not at all clear that the burgeoning conservative infrastructure, much of it thrown up by the most committed of ideologues, will prove all that attractive in a left-leaning state like Rhode Island.
Indeed, many within the GOP itself are arguing that the party has to strike a moderate, inclusive tone if it is to have any hope of a comeback. "When Republicans have problems, it's because we polarize," said Carol A. Mumford, who represented Scituate in the state's House of Representatives for a decade before retiring last year.
Some in the moderate wing of the GOP fault Governor Carcieri for uncompromising rhetoric on illegal immigration, abortion, and same-sex marriage.
But most chalk up Chafee's defeat in 2006 and the General Assembly setbacks in November not to any local mistakes, but to a national party that moved too far to the right: pursuing an unpopular war and taking controversial positions on hot-button issues like stem-cell research.
Observers say they're probably correct.
Darrell West, a former political science professor at Brown University who is now with the Brookings Institution, a Washington, DC-based think tank, said Republican governors around the country fared reasonably well amid the Bush backlash because they had the bully pulpit and campaign cash they needed to distance themselves from an unpopular president.
But members of Con-gress, like Chafee, had trouble shaking free of their Washington ties to the national party, he said, while state representatives and state senators did not have the money or megaphone to separate themselves from a toxic party brand.
With Bush back in Texas now, Rhode Island Republicans are better positioned to reclaim the middle ground. And the GOP is even hoping for an anti-Obama bounce next year, particularly if the Rhode Island economy — as predicted — takes longer to rebound than most.
That's the short-term plan. In the long term, GOP leaders are placing bets on the new national party chairman.
Steele, a former Maryland lieutenant governor, has been a controversial figure of late: making headlines with a series of shoot-from-the-hip gaffes, including a comment on abortion that alarmed pro-life elements of the party.