The great mystery of the 2012 Republican nomination contest is why conservatives, who clearly were uneasy with Mitt Romney, chose to sit on their hands and thus accept him rather than rallying to one of the alternatives out there – whether it was Tim Pawlenty, or Rick Perry, or Haley Barbour, or John Thune, or even, late in the day, to Rick Santorum.

Ed Kilgore has a good theory today: it’s that the GOP has moved so far to the right that none of the candidates has a clean slate on the issues which motivate Tea Partiers.  For example, Rick Perry’s downfall was as much about immigration and vaccination as it was about his poor debate performances; Rick Santorum was an earmarker. And thus to voters, it was hard to see any of the (actually very real) differences between Romney and his opponents.

Could be! But I prefer a very similar, but more elite-driven explanation. The problem perhaps isn’t so much that conservatives couldn’t tell the difference between Romney and the others. It’s that the others failed to gather enough resources to run viable campaigns – and that failure was because for conservative leaders, sitting it out has become the only safe choice. Support Thune, and next thing you know you’ll be accused of supporting TARP. Support Santorum, and you might be an earmarker. Support Perry, and you may be accused of practically begging young girls to become sexually active (because Perry supported cancer vaccinations). Even worse: you never know which of a candidate’s old policy positions will become retroactively radioactive because Barack Obama adopts it. So there’s no way to know what the safe selection might be.

So conservative leaders stayed quiet, with the exception of a handful who endorsed Perry before his campaign imploded. And as a result, Thune (and Daniels, and Barbour, and others) never got into the race all the way, and Pawlenty dropped out in the summer, and Santorum never had the resources to compete.

And that’s how the Tea Party nominated Mitt Romney.