JUST UNDER the surface of a sleepy primary election, a revolution is brewing.

No, we're not talking about Milton Street's mayoral campaign. The whisper around town is that this might be the election that puts Philadelphia's tired Republican Party back in business.

The local GOP has been on the decline for years. Registered Democrats in the city outnumber registered Republicans, 6-1. But a posse of angry young newcomers is looking to overturn the old guard. If some of their candidates win on Tuesday, this could be the start of something big.

"It's got the potential to be a bellwether election," said Zack Stalberg, president of the watchdog group Committee of Seventy. "And things can change quickly.

"The city went from 60 years of Republican rule to 60 years of Democratic rule in a very short period of time. And the Republican majority then was even bigger than the Democratic majority is now."

That election in 1951 was when reformist Democrats Richardson Dilworth and Joseph Clark overturned the corrupt machine running City Hall, ending 67 years of Republican rule in Philadelphia. Clark served as mayor, followed by Dilworth.

On the front line of this generation's revolt are young guns like ward leader Kevin Kelly, who founded an independent Republican group called The Loyal Opposition, and City Commission candidate Al Schmidt.

They believe that party chairman Vito Canuso and general counsel Mike Meehan - a third-generation GOP boss - haven't fought to win elections and are more concerned about protecting patronage jobs, like the 100-plus positions they have at the state-controlled Parking Authority.

"Mike views the control of the party as his birthright," said ward leader J. Matthew Wolfe. "He views the purpose of Republican City Committee [is] to sustain itself. He doesn't view it as winning elections."

Canuso said the Republicans are always trying to win and are open to advice on how to do better.

The newcomers think the GOP should build its ranks and serve as a voice of opposition to the Democratic majority.

"I would like to see the party and its elected officials be more aggressive and responsible in condemning what is wrong and standing up for what's right," Schmidt said. "And not just be a party of going along to get along, but to offer solutions to the problems we face."

The battles between the new and the old guard reached a fever pitch last summer when the Republican City Committee refused to recognize new ward leaders backed by the upstarts. Kelly and company then complained to the state party about irregularities in Canuso's re-election as chairman. Canuso is not currently recognized as chairman by the state party.

It wasn't always this way. Even after the Republican Party lost its grip on the city in 1951, it still put up strong candidates for citywide office. The party has won the controller's office and district attorney, but not since 1989. Compare that to this year when Republican City Committee had so few options for mayor that it endorsed unknown Democrat Karen Brown.

Of course, some blame the party's woes on the national image of the Republican Party - that it has been hard for the city GOP to distance itself from being the party of President George W. Bush.

"The product that we're selling is not being purchased by our customers in Philadelphia," said Republican state Rep. John Taylor.

The upshot of the recent party infighting means that there are actually intra-Republican battles in Tuesday's primary. Schmidt, who launched a failed bid for controller two years ago, is running for City Commission against the two party-endorsed candidates, Joe Duda and Marie Delany.

In the fight for the Republican City Council at-large seats, returning candidate David Oh had to battle for an endorsement after the party's inner circle initially denied him one. The other endorsed candidates are Malcom Lazin, Al Taubenberger, John Giordano and Joe McColgan. Left out were longtime City Councilman Frank Rizzo, state Rep. Dennis O'Brien, Michael Untermeyer, Elmer Money and Stephen Odabashian.

For mayor, the party backed Brown over perennial GOP candidate John Featherman. Mike Cibik, leader of the 5th Ward in Center City and part of the dissident GOP movement, said the party toyed with giving Featherman the endorsement before backing Brown.

"That would have been the wise move on their part," Cibik said. "But then they picked Brown. It's only helped our cause. It's just incredible. These guys just keep shooting themselves in the foot."

Asked if there was the potential for a party backlash after recruiting Brown, Canuso said it was obvious there were "always disgruntled people" in the party.

"It's unfortunate that Mr. Featherman has made us the issue," Canuso said. "Fortunately, Karen is very optimistic and upbeat. She's looking forward to the November campaign."

Some candidates bucking the party may make it through on Tuesday. If they do, that could be viewed as a sign that the old party machine is on its last legs.

"I think that clearly the Republican Party is in need of fresh blood and fresh ideas. Clearly, someone like an Al Schmidt running for commissioner represents that," said Republican political consultant Jeff Jubelirer. "The mayor's race, who knows who wins, but if Featherman were to win the primary . . . it says to the old guard, you can't anoint who our candidate will be."

Looking ahead, whether Meehan and Canuso will bow out or try to share with the newcomers remains unclear. Either way, the next step for Republicans looking to grow the party is to field a strong candidate for mayor in 2015. The party's last real shot was Sam Katz, a former Democrat with fundraising prowess, who ran in 1999 and 2003.

"I believe we came so close in 1999 and 2003 with Sam Katz," Jubelirer said. "So close and if he would have won, that would have opened up the floodgates for people to be comfortable [with the GOP]."