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For Hill Republicans, an Opportunity to Rebrand Their Party

Republicans have begun their “rebranding” campaign by holding a town hall in Northern Virginia. Those efforts surely are necessary, since the party’s standing in polls continues to erode. But any success from the new approach is likely to proceed at a snail’s pace.

It’s difficult to change opinions that have gelled over the past few years, and GOP efforts to reach voters town hall by town hall are likely to be overshadowed by major fights on Capitol Hill, over everything from health care to spending to Supreme Court nominations.

The retirement of Justice David Souter is a case in point, and the fight over his replacement presents Republicans with an interesting conundrum.

Do Capitol Hill Republicans dig in for an Alamo-like stand, opposing President Barack Obama’s nominee right to the bitter end, or do they adopt a more cautious style in evaluating what almost certainly will be a nominee who will likely mirror Souter’s views and merely reconstitute the court’s four-person liberal bloc that already includes Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and John Paul Stevens?

The problem is more complicated, of course, than merely choosing one strategy. The GOP is divided, and there surely will be a wide variety of opinions of exactly how to respond to the president’s eventual selection.

Some movement conservatives already have begun to gather ammunition for a bloody, protracted fight with the White House, no matter who the president selects, and you can be sure that bookers on the nation’s cable “news” networks will be drawn to the most vociferous and confrontational, not necessarily the most thoughtful.

In other words, Republicans won’t automatically be able to choose their own spokesmen or limit the visibility of party bomb throwers as the debate over Obama’s selection proceeds.

Still, Republican leaders can’t ignore the fact that how party leaders respond to the president’s nominee will affect how the public views the GOP, and that the heavy media coverage over the selection and the Republican response to it will do more to reinforce or change public perceptions of the GOP than will a dozen town halls across the country.

The political realities of Washington, D.C., are clear: Democrats now hold 59 Senate seats and are likely to gain a 60th sometime in the next few months. Republican opposition to a Supreme Court nominee is fruitless unless at least one Democratic Senator opposes the nomination and would side with all 40 Republicans to block a vote.

A truly controversial selection might well give Republicans enough ammunition to delay or derail a nomination, but Obama is more likely to select a nominee who, while liberal, is not an easy target for Republicans. At least that is what Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) concluded after a conversation with the president during which Obama said he would not nominate a “bomb thrower.”

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