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Republican Party at odds with itself in presidential nomination fight

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The race for the Republican presidential nomination is officially at its midpoint. Twenty-six states have voted. More than 9 million ballots have been cast, from Florida to Maine to Hawaii. That makes now a good time to look back at the first 21 / 2 months of voting to see what they can tell us about the current state of the Republican Party.

Fundamentally, it is a party at odds with itself — warring between two competing visions of how to accomplish its ultimate goal of reclaiming the White House in November.

“The GOP is united on replacing President Obama and divided on the best way to do it,” said Matt McDonald, a Republican strategist who is unaffiliated in the 2012 race. “On the one hand, you have people who see motivating the base as the path to victory, and on the other hand, you have people who see reaching out to independents as the path to victory.”

Others express that sentiment slightly differently — “Our party is trying to choose between its head and its heart,” said Eric Ueland, a longtime Senate strategist — but what’s clear is that in a political world in which Republican voters want “both/and,” they are faced with “either/or.”

“Republicans want an unabashed conservative champion who can defeat Obama,” said Dan Hazelwood, a Republican direct-mail consultant. “And like the most popular girl in high school, the party faithful are carefully evaluating every suitor and — perhaps unfairly — noting every blemish.”

Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney has proved in the first half of the primary process to be what we thought he always was: the standout in fundraising and organization whose moderation (tonally and on specific issues) makes it hard for the conservative base to love him.

If you are a Republican voter who prizes beating Obama over all other issues, Romney has been, is and will be your guy. Electability has consistently been the single most important trait that voters nationwide have cited when picking a candidate this year, and Romney has won among those voters in all but two states, according to an analysis of exit polling. (The outliers are South Carolina and Georgia, both of which former House speaker Newt Gingrich carried.)

And yet, for all the emphasis on electability, Romney’s inability to engender passion — or anything resembling it — among the the party’s ideological and religious base has led to a protracted search for an alternative that appears to have settled on former senator Rick Santorum (Pa.).

Evangelical Christians have made up about 50 percent of all Republican voters in the race, according to exit polls; Romney has been unable to win a single state where evangelicals account for more than half of the electorate. Combine those voters looking for a “true conservative” and those who prize “strong moral character,” and the number outpaces that of GOP voters who cite electability as the critical characteristic in a candidate.

The exit poll numbers bear out what anyone who has watched both men speakor seen either on the campaign trail can tell you. Romney is the clinician, carefully analyzing his place on the court relative to his opponents at all times. Santorum is the “feel” player, worrying less about grand strategy than about the current moment in which he is dwelling. Both men are badly limited politically. Santorum can’t get or stay organized. Romney lacks the passion gene.

What does that mean for the second half of the nomination fight? Think of two boxers, standing in the middle of the ring. Both are exhausted. But neither one can knock the other out. Romney is set to win the fight on points — his delegate lead over Santorum is close to insurmountable — but that result may not solve the question at the heart of this long slog. “The bottom line is that [voters] want a candidate that they can love,” said former congressman Thomas M. Reynolds (R-N.Y.).

He added that “2012 hasn’t produced that Republican presidential candidate. The second half of primary season begins more of the same until the money runs out.”

For a party desperate to reclaim the White House in fewer than eight months, that’s not an encouraging sentiment. Someone has to win. But if it doesn’t look or feel like a win to many in the party, will Republicans be able to recover in time for November?

For previous Fix columns, visit PostPolitics.

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