RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

We've been hearing a lot this week about the first 100 days of the Obama administration. It's also the first 100 days for the Republicans in an unaccustomed role - as an opposition party controlling neither the White House nor Congress.

NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY: Republican fortunes took a turn for the worse on the 99th day of the Obama presidency. Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter announced he's switching sides. A Republican since the 1960s, Specter said he isn't ditching his party so much as his party is ditching him.

Senator ARLEN SPECTER (Republican, Pennsylvania): The party has shifted very far to the right.

HORSLEY: Specter complained some 200,000 Republicans had left the party in Pennsylvania last year. And according to a new poll by the Washington Post and ABC News, only about one in five Americans nationwide now call themselves Republicans, the lowest percentage in more than a quarter century.

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell acknowledged yesterday the party has a lot of ground to make up.

Senator MITCH McCONNELL (Senate Minority Leader; Republican, Kentucky): We have not done very well in the Northeast the last couple of years. We haven't done as well any places as we would like to have done in the last couple of years. We intend to be competitive on a nationwide basis. I do not accept that we're going to be a regional party. And we're working very hard to compete throughout the country.

HORSLEY: But as a practical matter, McConnell concedes if Specter votes with Senate Democrats, and if Al Franken holds onto his lead in the long-running Minnesota Senate recount, Republicans will no longer have the 41 votes they need to block unwanted legislation with a filibuster.

Sen. McCONNELL: It certainly sets up the potential for the majority - if it chooses to - to run roughshod over the minority, to eliminate checks and balances and the kind of restraint that Americans have historically wanted from their government.

HORSLEY: The minority may still be able to do that at times. For example, Specter says he'll continue to oppose the so-called card check bill that would make it easier for unions to organize workers. But in most cases, pollster Scott Rasmussen says Republicans will have little, if any, say.

Mr. SCOTT RASMUSSEN (President, Rasmussen Reports): Beltway Republicans really are largely irrelevant in the debate, and I guess that's about as discouraging as you can get for people that, you know, have been in power at some level for 26 of the last 28 years.

HORSLEY: Republicans are also wrestling with a leadership vacuum. Their young Turks, like Virginia Congressman Eric Cantor, have little national name recognition. And old Republicans who are well-known, like Newt Gingrich, tend to have baggage.

Still, political scientist Steve Schier of Carleton College says none of these problems is unprecedented.

Professor STEVE SCHIER (Political Science, Carleton College): It's not unusual for an opposition party to have a rough 100 days when the other party takes the White House, and I think the Republicans have had such a time.

HORSLEY: Schier notes the GOP's been beaten badly before, in 1964, for example, and again in 1992, only to come roaring back in midterm elections two years later.

Prof. SCHIER: The last two times we've really had ambitious Democratic presidents, they were repudiated two years in, and the Republicans gained significant seats. Does that mean that'll happen to Obama? By no means. But there are some examples that indicate the GOP could find some hope.

HORSLEY: Schier says just as the 100-day mark is too soon to fully assess the Obama administration, it's also too soon to write off the Republican opposition.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington.

MONTAGNE: And you'll find our stories tracking how President Obama is doing on his agenda, in his first 100 days, at npr.org.

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