He declined to blame his predecessor, North Carolina Sen. Elizabeth Dole, who had candidate and fund-raising troubles. The GOP's problems were of its own making, he said. "I'm not going to go back and analyze what she did right or wrong. Those were circumstances beyond her control." The reasons for the party's losses run deeper than that. "Republicans lost their way. We worried about holding power instead of why we were in power," he told me.
"In 1994, I was elected as part of the Republican revolution that came in for a reason. Fiscal responsibility meant something. What happened over the years is that maintaining our committee chairmanships, maintaining our majority, figuring out how to get re-elected, became more important than why we were in control in the first place," he said.
"We were elected to govern as Republicans and we lost our way; the voters saw little difference between us and the Democrats. We need to get the heart and soul back in our party."
He acknowledged the war, if it's still raging this time next year, will be a huge problem for the GOP's most vulnerable senators in states trending Democratic. Notably, he advised GOP candidates, torn between defending President Bush's war effort or getting out, to "vote their conscience" and forget about "what is the best political calculation for how I should vote." "You had better search your heart and soul for what you think is the right thing to do on this and take politics out of it," he said.
That sounds like he is telling incumbents they are free to break with the administration if that's what they believe and will help them survive the Democrats' expected antiwar offensive next year. He denied that, saying incumbents must decide what is "the right vote for the interests of the United States, the interest of our troops."
One of the first things he did when he took over, he said, was to "put together lessons learned from the last campaign, from the people who had won and lost. Those sessions were incredibly valuable" in charting a new campaign strategy.
Meantime, he is a hands-on chairman who said he likes to "think outside the box" and that he will be doing things very differently this year and next, to minimize any GOP losses.
It isn't enough anymore to "point out what Democrats are doing wrong," he said. "You have to point out what you are for, you have to stand for something."