"To some degree it's a challenge in as much you don't have a standard bearer to rally behind that unifies central themes of the conservative movement," Musser said. "The bottom line is that a little bit of messiness and frank family discussion is not a terrible thing after an election like this."
But Democrats are emboldened, both by their Election Day successes and the subsequent Republican discord.
GOP factions are fighting over multiple issues: the "fiscal cliff," which will dominate the debate on Capitol Hill at least through the end of the year; blame for Romney's defeat; and how to appeal to a shifting and more diverse electorate and unify its message.
The party's most passionate voters are reluctant to abandon hard-line immigration policies that have dominated their thinking for years. But Washington-based strategists describe a dire need to win over more Hispanic voters and other minorities who overwhelmingly supported Obama in the swing states that decided the election.
At the same time, rank-and-file Republicans on Capitol Hill are struggling to coalesce behind a single message during fiscal cliff negotiations that have exposed a new rift with fiscal conservative guru Grover Norquist and his anti-tax pledge.
There's also evidence that the fight isn't over between the conservative and pragmatic wings of the party in Senate primaries.
Conservatives wasted little time signaling that they would work to defeat Shelley Moore Capito, a popular congresswoman from a storied West Virginia political family, as she seeks the nomination for the chance to challenge Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller in 2014. Within an hour of Capito's announcing her candidacy, the deep-pocketed conservative Club for Growth branded her as the "establishment candidate" whose record in Congress of supporting prominent bailouts has led to bigger government.
Democrats already are working to exploit the GOP divisions to strengthen their own political standing.
Obama has taken his party's message directly to voters. He visited a Pennsylvania toy manufacturer on Friday, calling for Republicans to embrace the immediate extension of tax cuts for all but the top 2 percent of wealthiest Americans.
Though Boehner has taken the lead in negotiations with the White House, Republicans generally did not have a standard-bearer to counter that message. Instead, they're relying on familiar Capitol Hill leaders to guide party doctrine during his debate.
"We don't have one person out there carrying that torch. You'll have (South Carolina Sen.) Lindsey Graham, Speaker Boehner, (Wisconsin Rep.) Paul Ryan, John McCain — same old, same old," said Republican strategist Hogan Gidley, a senior official on former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum's unsuccessful presidential bid. "Void of a singular leader, we're going to have to rely on some of the younger more dynamic speakers to go out and make our argument."
No one, it seems, is talking about Romney assuming any sort of leadership role.
"I don't think that we need to be looking toward Mitt Romney to articulate our principles," said Jenny Beth Martin, co-founder and national coordinator for the Tea Party Patriots.
It appears Romney may cooperate, choosing business over politics in defeat.
The former businessman is subletting office space at the Boston-area venture capital firm, Solamere Capital, which was founded by his oldest son. Former aides expect Romney to stay out of the spotlight for the foreseeable future — spending colder months at his California home and warmer months at his New Hampshire lake house.
"It might be better for him, better for the party, to start fresh," Gidley said.
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