In the 1960s, it was Goldwater. In the 1970s and 80s, it was Reagan. And in the 90s, the conservative movement's leader was Gingrich.
But since Newt's ugly exit, conservatism and the GOP in general have lurched in various directions, most of them with minimal success.
Not only has President Bush taken the party over a cliff, but the current faces of the movement (Limbaugh, Hannity, and Beck) simply get paid to babble. The Democratic Party is full of stars, the brightest of whom likely will be elected president in 26 days. The one disadvantage of conservative dominance of talk radio is that these "personalities" -- the stupidest descriptor in the history of the English language -- become more important than the politicians themselves. In fact, these "personalities" go out of their way to crucify those -- like McCain, Schwarzenegger, Guiliani, even Romney -- who dare stray from the reservation.
There is no magic bullet. The events of the last several weeks have proven that, at least in the near term, it's not a winning argument in the current climate to return to the small-government mantra of the Reagan years.
The GOP needs a leader who can articulate a new direction that leaves the Bush wing of the party in the dust and can combat the patronizing populism of Obama, Edwards and Dean. Eight years ago, McCain could have been the guy. But at 72, his time has passed.
And no -- Gov. Palin is not the tonic for what ails the GOP.
So if McCain fails (which he most likely will), can Govs. Jindal or Pawlenty save the party in 2012?
Even if McCain pulls off the most remarkable of comebacks, he'll face an uphill battle against Sen. Clinton if he seeks reelection.
It's not a good time to be right of center.