E.J. Dionne Jr.
Opinion writer January 8, 2012

It isn’t every day that political candidates are asked whether the 10th Amendment allows states to nullify federal laws, but that was precisely the question Rick Santorum faced at a forum here a few days ago organized by a libertarian-leaning group.

E.J. Dionne writes about politics in a twice-weekly column and on the PostPartisan blog. He is also a senior fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution, a government professor at Georgetown University and a frequent commentator on politics for National Public Radio, ABC’s “This Week” and NBC’s “Meet the Press.” View Archive

To his credit, Santorum did not pander to the nullifier. “We had a Civil War about nullification,” Santorum said with a smile. “I’m not sure I want to go there.”

But Santorum’s experience raises a larger question about this year’s Republican primary contest: Rather than strengthening the party for the coming battle against President Obama, will it instead leave it more marginalized from the views of swing voters? Have the party’s candidates, particularly Mitt Romney, had to spend too much time and energy wooing voters far to the right of the mainstream?

And something else happened during Sunday morning’s debate on NBC’s “Meet the Press”: Front-runner Romney came under the first sustained attack from his opponents on his character, especially his core claim to be a citizen-businessman rather than a politician. The assaults were especially fierce from Santorum and Newt Gingrich.

A Rubicon was crossed when Gingrich looked at Romney at one point and commented acidly: “Can we drop a little bit of the pious baloney?” Both Santorum and Gingrich argued that Romney has been in and out of campaigns since 1994 and has fabricated a misleading public persona that tried to hide just how much of a politician he really is.

It was a telling charge that Obama would certainly highlight if Romney won the GOP nomination. Sunday’s raucous encounter suggested that unless Romney closes the nomination struggle quickly, he could suffer further damage.

In the meantime, Jon Huntsman broke through in a way he hadn’t before when he responded to Romney’s criticism of the former Utah governor’s service as Obama’s ambassador to China. “This nation is divided . . . because of attitudes like that,” Huntsman said to applause.

Primary fights can splinter and dispirit a political party, an experience Democrats had over and over from the late 1960s into the early 1980s. But they can also mobilize and energize, exactly what happened during the Democrats’ epic 2008 contest between Obama and Hillary Clinton. That confrontation brought tens of thousands of new voters into the Democratic primaries and required Obama to organize early in states such as North Carolina, Virginia and Indiana. All went his way in November.

So far, the impact of this year’s Republican contest has been more negative than positive for the GOP. Most of the news from the race before the voting highlighted the shortcomings of the various contenders: Gingrich’s jewelry-buying habits, Rick Perry’s debate meltdowns, Herman Cain’s personal troubles. This was happening as the party’s image had already been dented by the unpopularity of the GOP in Congress.

The ideological fervor in the party might have overcome the frailties of its candidates and mobilized the faithful anyway. But so far, this hasn’t happened. The crowds at rallies and events have been far from exceptional, and at least in the Iowa caucuses, turnout almost certainly would have been down from 2008 but for the independents and young people brought into the caucuses by Ron Paul. Many of these libertarians and peace activists will not naturally fit into the GOP, and can’t be counted on to support the party’s nominee.

There have been pluses for the Republicans. Many of the criticisms of Obama over the economy from the disciplined Romney could be persuasive later to moderates and independents. Santorum has reminded Republicans of the many working-class voters who have given the party victories in the past.

But while Obama has been able to make general election arguments — on behalf of the middle class, in favor of popular tax increases on the wealthy, and against Republican obstruction of his efforts to protect consumers against abuses by the financial industry — the candidates who hope to oppose him have been required to live in a very different world. They have been pushed further to the anti-government right by Paul and further to the social-issue right by Santorum than will be convenient for the GOP come November.

There will be time for cleaning up from the primary fight. But Republicans have ceded Obama a head start — just as the economic news has started to look up. And for a moment at least, Romney was shaken from his pedestal.

ejdionne@washpost.com