Karl Rove has been rather chatty of late. He’s taken a hammer to Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) over the birther nonsense and to Herman Cain for basic unpreparedness. MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell thought Rove was “trying to circle the wagons around Mitt Romney as an inevitable nominee.” While I saw where he was coming from, I had a different take. Rove isn’t circling the wagons around Romney. He’s circling the wagons around the Republican Party as a legitimate political party in the United States.

Rove is not alone in this endeavor.

“Any other issue that gets injected to the campaign is not good for the Republicans,” Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R) said Tuesday. “Republicans should want this election to be what American presidential elections have always been: a referendum on the incumbent’s record. Barack Obama cannot win a second term running on his record. Zero chance. So anybody who talks about anything else is off-subject.”

Former Florida governor Jeb Bush, who has pretty much stayed out of the Republican primary process, told my colleague Jennifer Rubin of “Right Turn,” “Republican candidates should categorically reject the notion that President Obama was not born in the United States. It is a complete distraction from the failed economic policies of the president.”

Even televangelist Pat Robertson, master of the extreme and repugnant, has cautioned the GOP. “Those people in the Republican primary have got to lay off of this stuff,” he said Tuesday. “They’re forcing their leaders, the front-runners, into positions that will mean they lose the general election. . . . They’ve got to stop this! It’s just so counterproductive!”

While their comments are focused on nominating someone who could beat a vulnerable incumbent, the secondary and more pressing objective is to save the party from being overtaken by the radical fringe. Unfortunately, their concern is coming years too late. At the height of the birther craziness, responsible Republican leaders remained mute while the legitimacy of President Obama was questioned, despite ample evidence to the contrary. In the early days of the Tea Party movement, when extremists armed themselves with incendiary rhetoric and some with actual guns, responsible Republican leaders turned a blind eye and a deaf ear. The result of the GOP’s flirtation with the fringe is the once-unfathomable phrase “front-runner Herman Cain.”

The former Godfather’s Pizza chief executive is woefully unprepared for a run for the White House, let alone a victory that puts him in the White House. As Time’s Swampland reported on Monday, Cain has little to no presence in key states, including New Hampshire and South Carolina. The same goes for Iowa, according to a report from Slate last week. And yet, despite all his policy gaffes and head-scratching antics from his campaign, Cain rides a wave of growing support.

The just-released New York Times/CBS News poll gives Cain (25 percent) a four-point edge over Mitt Romney (21 percent). But it’s a statistical tie since the margin of error is plus or minus three percentage points. In Iowa, Cain (37 percent) leads Romney (27 percent). In New Hampshire, Romney’s home-field advantage as the former governor of Massachusetts who also owns a home in the Granite State comes into play. He leads Cain by 22 points. But in South Carolina, Cain is riding high.

South Carolina is where Perry’s birther play and Cain’s rise spell trouble for the Republican Party. A poll of Republican primary voters by the State newspaper showed that one in three believe that Obama is a Muslim and 36 percent believe the president was born in another country. To get their votes, win the primary and possibly save their campaigns, who knows how much lower Cain, Perry and anyone else barely hanging on will go. But there is one ray of hope for the GOP. The NYT/CBS News poll shows that 80 percent of those surveyed who expressed support for a specific candidate say it is “still too early to say for sure” that they’ll vote for that person. Where they decide to put their support ultimately will determine whether the Republican Party's nose dive into political oblivion will be averted.