GIVE CREDIT to Joe DeFelice, the executive director of the city's Republican Party. With the blessing of the party chairman, state Rep. John Taylor, he is leading a youth movement within the GOP and has recruited a gaggle of under-40 candidates to run for City Council and mayor.

The move makes tactical sense, partly because it stands in sharp contrast to the Democratic organization's approach to recruiting candidates, which seems to require AARP membership before it will back you as a candidate. (The only bow to youth in the ruling party is when a ward leader's or elected official's son or daughter wants to run for office.)

But, this emphasis on youth also carries the scent of desperation. The Republican Party's numbers in the city have been declining for years, and something has to be done lest it totally sink from view.

In 1999, when then-Republican Sam Katz made a serious run for mayor, there were 198,000 registered Republicans in the city. Today, there are 119,000.

On the surface, those are dismal numbers. Dig a little deeper, though, and the picture is even worse.

In reality, there are only 81,000 Republicans who are active voters - meaning they have voted at least once in the past five years. The other 38,000 haven't shown up at the polls for years.

Then there is geography. In effect, the party has ceased to exist as a citywide entity. About one in four Republicans are clustered in four wards in the Far Northeast (Wards 58, 63, 64 and 66).

It's all downhill from there. Only 11 percent of active voters are Republican and there are wards - mostly in African-American areas - where the number drops to 2 percent. For instance, of the 14,779 active voters in the 10th Ward, which is centered in West Oak Lane, only 237 are Republican.

There are 15 wards in the city where active Republicans number 300 or less. (No wonder there were divisions in Philadelphia where Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney got zero votes in 2012.)

It's not a surprise that support for the party has died out in minority wards. The national party has done a lot to earn the enmity of black and Latino voters. The days when there were Republican moderates - think of U.S. Sens. Hugh Scott, John Heinz, Dick Schweiker and Arlen Specter - who had appeal to black voters are long gone.

But the party has a problem deeper than alienated minority voters. It is appealing less and less to younger voters - the very group DeFelice wants to win over.

There are only 18,000 Republicans under age 34, compared with 164,000 Democrats in the same 18-to-34 age group.

A trend among younger voters is to shun the traditional parties altogether and to register (if they bother to register at all) as independents. The number of active voters who are independents or members of minor parties stands at 59,000, which is still less than the active Republicans.

But in 42 of the city's 66 wards, independent voters outnumber active Republicans. That list includes every ward in greater Center City, home to a high proportion of younger voters.

DeFelice said the party's version of "Urban Republicanism" can appeal to younger voters. What is urban Republicanism? "A little more libertarian in nature," DeFelice replied. "Government out of our pocketbooks and out of the bedroom."

In the end, Republicans are pragmatic, DeFelice said.

"When we talk about things that really matter - good schools, clean streets, safety - there shouldn't be a Republican or Democratic way of doing things."

This new version of Republicanism is different from the old one as practiced in the city. The party organization under several generations of the Meehan family was more get-along/go-along with the Democrats, often satisfied with a slice of the pie - when it came to jobs, judgeships, contracts, etc. - than in vigorous competition.

The last Republican win for citywide office was in 1989, when Ron Castille ran for re-election as district attorney.

Billy Meehan, who was Republican boss from 1961 until his death in 1994, ruled with an iron fist encased in a velvet glove.

Although Republicans were a minority in the city, Meehan was allied with GOP leaders in the suburbs, creating a formidable power block in state politics. When Meehan died, there were still 200,000 Republicans in the city. He was recognized as a regional leader, influential in Harrisburg and Washington, which helped him with Democrats in the city.

When Meehan died suddenly at age 69, his son, Michael, took over as party leader, but could do nothing to stop the long slide in the party's fortunes. Get-along/go-along was no longer yielding results. Democrats eventually brushed off the opposition party, as ineffectual and weak.

Taylor, the last Republican in the Legislature from Philadelphia, reluctantly took over leadership.

DeFelice is a true believer and delivers a recitation of the party and its virtues with a nearly religious fervor.

He has the sermon down. But he is delivering it to empty pews.