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Is the Republican Party in peril?

Conservative thinkers and political historians think the GOP could be at the end of its historic 40-year grasp on power.

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But if the Republican convention here goes as planned, the spotlight will, for a change, be all McCain's. And that is both a risk and an opportunity.

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"The peril is trying to compete with Obama, because they can't Out-Obama Obama," says Nancy Beck Young, an American political historian at the University of Houston.

"McCain needs to focus on his own compelling story" as a decorated war hero, she says. "He needs to remind people why they liked him in 2000. The maverick, bipartisan McCain needs to come out, and the Bush-loving McCain needs to take a vacation between now and November."

Mr. Edwards, the former Oklahoma congressman, goes further.

"This is his chance to come out and do something inspirational so you have Republicans jumping up and down in their seats and cheering," says Edwards. "He needs to have people walk out of the Xcel Center with a mission – that we want this guy to be president. And I don't think he's there yet."

The modern Republican era traces its roots to Senator Goldwater's 1960 book, "The Conscience of a Conservative," an anti-Communist, small-government manifesto that still serves as a kind of bible for ideological purists.

Goldwater, an Arizona Senator, lost his bid for the presidency in 1964. But his ideas soon fueled a larger reaction against what critics saw as the excesses of the New Deal, the Great Society, and the social movements, antiwar protests, and inner-city riots of the late 1960s.

Tapping into the cultural anxieties of working-class whites and Southerners, the party began to shed its image as a country club for Northern elites and big business.

"The modern right rose out of a widespread concern that pluralistic, cosmopolitan forces threatened America's national identity," American University Prof. Allan Lichtman writes in a new book, White Protestant Nation: The Rise of the American Conservative Movement. "Anti-pluralism, in turn, gave the right a mass base and a passion that economic conservatism lacks."

Richard Nixon called the disaffected Americans "the silent majority" and captured the presidency in 1968. In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan brought the conservative movement to its apotheosis, winning landslide elections with support from a coalition of fiscal conservatives, defense hawks, and socially conservative blue-collar voters who came to be known as Reagan Democrats.

Reagan delivered on much of the conservative agenda: He cut taxes, built up the military, moved federal courts to the right, and helped bring an end to the Soviet Union. Though Bill Clinton would win the White House in 1992, the GOP took the House of Representatives two years later for the first time in four decades. Republicans called it a "revolution."