With Philadelphia's May 15 mayoral primary less than four months away, the Democratic Party has four candidates and counting. Republicans? Not a one.

Not much of a showing for a major party in the nation's fifth-largest city.

Things are so desperate that GOP insiders have taken to pleading with Democrats - including mayoral candidates Dwight Evans and Michael Nutter, and union leader John J. Dougherty, who's not in the race - to jump ship.

Their newest target: millionaire businessman Tom Knox, another Democrat for mayor who has been busy airing $1.7 million worth of TV ads.

Some Republicans are even suggesting the unthinkable: not running a candidate at all.

The city's Republican Party, it seems, is hanging by a chad, at least as far as anointing a candidate to run City Hall.

"They are absent without leave since the last mayoral election," said Randall Miller, a history professor at St. Joseph's University, referring to Sam Katz's unsuccessful run at John Street. "Instead of regrouping and grooming candidates for a major citywide office, they've gone into a bunker."

Michael Meehan is the man charged with fixing the problem. As the GOP leader in town, he bears the responsibility of finding a credible candidate for a party that has not won the mayor's office since 1947.

That's right, 1947.

Then, the city had a viable Republican Party that for years had dominated the political landscape. Now, registered city Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly 5-1.

"One of the really bad things that's happened to this city is the demise of the Republican Party, because it eliminates competition," said former city managing director Phil Goldsmith, now a management consultant.

"Thanks to the Republican Party, the Democratic candidate will have a lot of time on his hands" when the May primary is over, Goldsmith said.

The effort to find a candidate this year is complicated by anti-Republican sentiment in Washington, which Meehan fears could spill over into the mayor's race.

"What if Iraq doesn't go well? Will the angry voters from 2006 carry over their anger to 2007?" Meehan wondered.

Still, Meehan, legal counsel to Philadelphia's Republican City Committee since 1994, believes: "People may think I'm Don Quixote, but I'm not giving up."

It can be done, of course.

In 1999 and 2003, for instance, the GOP had a strong candidate in Sam Katz. In his first campaign, Katz, a former Democrat, came within 9,400 votes of beating Street - the closest the GOP has come to winning in a half-century.

"If Sam couldn't win, who could?" said Meehan, echoing what city business leaders tell him now. They are some of the same people who helped Katz raise almost $11 million in 2003.

At least one voter is frustrated by the defeatist talk.

"I don't think they are pushing hard enough," said retired businessman Paul Andris, 74. A former GOP committeeman in the 53d Ward in the Burholme section of Northeast Philadelphia, he said, "It seems there is a lack of deep concern and interest in what happens."

Philadelphia hasn't elected a Republican to a major citywide office since 1989, when Ron Castille was reelected district attorney.

"I don't believe, frankly, that a Republican can win," Katz - still trying to repay his campaign debt - said recently. "The best argument that the Democrats can have is that next year we are having a presidential election, and if we let a Republican in, then we help Pennsylvania become a red state."

Meehan - whose grandfather and father ran the party before him - refuses to dismiss the chance, no matter how slim, that a Republican might slip into City Hall.

Currently, four Democrats - Evans, Nutter, Knox and U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah - are vying for the office. A fifth, U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, who chairs the city's Democratic Party, is expected to join the race next week.

Meehan, in interviews this week, said party activists who have reached out to both Nutter and Evans had been rebuffed. "I think they would have a hard time running under the Republican moniker," he said, adding he was open to more talks with them.

Meehan also disclosed that last month he personally courted Knox, who polls show as lagging behind Nutter, Evans, Fattah and Brady.

"We can assure him one thing he can't assure himself: He'd still be a candidate after the primary," said Meehan, suggesting that Republicans would clear the field for Knox, whose wife was a Republican until recently.

Knox, who said former State House Speaker John Perzel also approached him, rejected the offer. "I keep telling them, I'm not switching," Knox said in an interview.

Even so, Meehan is hopeful. He cites recent polls showing that one-half to two-thirds of Philadelphians believe the city is on the wrong track.

"Growing dissatisfaction with the state of the city will be the determining factor of whether or not a Republican gets elected," he said.

So the search goes on, with the Republican Party selection committee, a group of 35 to 40 mostly political officials and fund-raisers, expected to hold its first meeting in a few weeks, and possibly tapping its nominee at that time. Weighing in will be new House Speaker Dennis O'Brien, State Rep. John Taylor and Perzel, all of Northeast Philadelphia.

Any Republican - or Democratic - nominee would have to file nominating petitions bearing at least 1,000 names by March 6 to get on the May 15 ballot.

"There's oars in the water," Meehan said. He wouldn't name names, and didn't express much enthusiasm for two others already being floated: lawyer George Bochetto and Al Taubenberger, who is president of the Greater Northeast Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce. Both are Republicans.

On Tuesday, Bochetto said it was very unlikely he would run, and Taubenberger said his candidacy was dependent on securing the party's endorsement.

"This whole scenario is a long shot," said Taubenberger, a past congressional candidate.

While GOP City Councilman Frank Rizzo insists he has decided nothing, Meehan said that, as far as he knew, Rizzo, despite high ratings in a recent poll, is not considering a run - as a Republican, anyway.

For now, then, the GOP boat remains stuck in the mud.

Which is where it ought to remain, according to some Republicans who have told Meehan that the party should run no candidate at all.

Why?

With no mayor's campaign of note in the fall, a lot fewer Philadelphia voters - primarily Democrats - would be expected at the polls. That would bolster the chances of statewide Republican candidates for four spots on the state's Supreme and Superior Courts.

But Meehan doesn't buy it.

If you stop endorsing candidates, he says, you stop being a party. Said Meehan: "We will have a candidate, even if I have to be the candidate."

Contact staff writer Marcia Gelbart at 215-854-2338 or mgelbart@phillynews.com.