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In Extremis

WASHINGTON -- Things are looking up for the Republicans, relatively speaking. President Obama's poll numbers have dipped, GOP recruitment for the 2010 elections is going better than expected, and the heath care battle has been rough on the Democrats.

On top of that, the surveys show Republicans now leading in this year's two major governor's races, in Virginia and New Jersey.

There's just one problem: The country still doesn't like Republicans.

A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll last week captured the public's mixed verdict. The headlines focused on growing doubts about Obama's health care plan and the drop in his approval rating, from 60 percent in February to 53 percent now.

But the same poll found that while Democrats as a party had a net positive rating of five points (42 percent positive to 37 percent negative), the GOP faced a 13-point deficit. Only 28 percent rated the Republicans positively; 41 percent rated them negatively.

Perhaps this has something to do with how few positive things Republicans have to say. As a result, the party is being defined by extremist voices who have faced little push-back from its leaders.

The extremists include the "birthers" who, against all evidence, insist that Obama was not born in the United States and thus ineligible to be president. These guys are so out there that party leaders and conservative commentators have started to disown them.

Race-baiting is no longer off-limits on some of the right-wing talk shows. Fox News' Glenn Beck, for example, declared that Obama "has a deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture."

Ethnicity has been an underlying issue in the debate around Judge Sonia Sotomayor's Supreme Court nomination. Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee questioned whether she would be fair by repeatedly referring to her comment -- from which she backed away -- about the relative wisdom of a "wise Latina."

Rush Limbaugh was far less subtle when her comment first surfaced. "How do you get promoted in a Barack Obama administration?" he asked. "By hating white people -- or even saying you do, or that they're not good or put 'em down, whatever."

Some in the party are also entering never-never land in their attacks on the Democrats' health care proposals. Last week, for example, Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., claimed that the Republican approach to health care would be more pro-life because it "will not put seniors in a position of being put to death by their government."

Foxx's ludicrous notion -- taking off in the right-wing blogosphere -- is that Section 1233 of the House health bill is an invitation to euthanasia.

It's nothing of the sort. It simply provides Medicare funding so seniors with life-threatening diseases can consult their doctors on advanced care and be given "an explanation by the practitioner of the continuum of end-of-life services and supports available, including palliative care and hospice, and benefits for such services and supports that are available under this title."

The harshness of the rhetorical salvos is feeding worries among some Republicans that the GOP is increasingly perceived as a right-wing, Southern regional party.

Sen. George Voinovich of Ohio brought those concerns to the surface in an interview with The Columbus Dispatch in which he spoke of the role played by Sens. Jim DeMint of South Carolina and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma.

"We got too many Jim DeMints and Tom Coburns," said Voinovich, who is retiring next year. "It's the Southerners." He added: "People hear them and say, 'These people, they're Southerners. The party's being taken over by Southerners.'"

Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana shot back, calling Voinovich "a moderate, really wishy-washy" in an interview with The Washington Times. But Vitter offered indirect support for Voinovich's claim when he said: "I'm on the side of conservatives getting back to core conservative values. There are a lot of us from the South who hold those value(s), which I think the party is supposed to be about."

E.J. Dionne, Jr. is the author of the recently published Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics After the Religious Right. He is a Washington Post columnist, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and a professor at Georgetown University.

By E.J. Dionne, Jr.