An anti-immigration hawk pronounces that neither Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) nor Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) can’t be the party’s 2016 presidential nominee because these Republicans favor immigration reform. A prominent national security hawk says Paul can’t be the guy because he is too isolationist. This sort of thinking is indicative of Republicans who haven’t figured out the paradigm shift in the electorate and the lesson pols took away from the 2012 loss.

Gov. Scott Walker-Darren Hauk/Reuters

For starters, immigration (like gay marriage) may be in the rear-view mirror in a couple years and, in any event, there seems to be a new sentiment in favor of some sort of reform plan. The reason the anti-immigration advocates sound so frantic is that they are running out of plausible standard-bearers to defend a position that’s losing favor in the country.

On national defense, pro-defense conservatives had better watch out for two possible scenarios: Either voters will discount isolationist views or, worse, they will like them. Simply banking on the Ronald Reagan foreign policy tradition is a bad bet; the case will need to be made for an internationalist foreign policy and be made by a compelling figure who offers reasonable policies grounded in our experience over the last few years. If an acolyte of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in get-off-my-lawn snarls tells the public to stop being wary of war, that candidate is likely to lose. As an internationalist who believes the United States has a critical role to play in the world, I worry that defense hawks have adopted an off-putting tone and abandoned persuasion in favor of hectoring.

But in a large sense, those who say this or that candidate can’t make it have it wrong. Even in the pre-2012 defeat days, Mitt Romney got the nomination having supported a state individual health-care insurance mandate. And now potential candidates such as Paul aren’t scurrying to find favor with every nook and cranny of the party. Instead, they are saying, “This is who I am — take it or leave it.”

By the way, anyone who thinks Gov. Chris Christie (R) took himself out of consideration by hugging Romney’s opponent and yelling at Congress should think again and see how high his reelection percentage is in blue New Jersey. A pro-life, entitlement-reforming, anti-tax Republican who can win, say, 60 percent of the vote in New Jersey is not to be minimized.

This outbreak of policy churning and heresy is scary, no doubt, for the different conservative advocate groups that expect presidential candidates to dance to their tunes.

Pete Wehner says it well: “This is not the time for intellectual rigidity and repeating the same slogans, only with volume turned up. Rather, people who represent different strands within the party need to engage each other with real arguments. I have a hunch, too. Those who believe their main purpose in life is to expel heretics from the temple–who believe in addition by subtraction and purity over prudence–are going to make a lot of noise and issue a lot of threats.” But, he warns, “They are fading figures, and on some deep level they recognize it.”

Lots of voices in the GOP are all for policy experimentation and modification — so long as their pet issues remain rigidly defended as articles of faith. This, however, is not the way it works. During a period of innovation everything is up for grabs, and it is incumbent on advocates and gurus to make the most compelling cases for their positions. The candidates aren’t going to come begging for approval (at least not the top stars) — they are out there bonding with the voters.

It is ridiculously early to write any candidate off. And it is foolhardy to overlook leading Republicans’ new sense of independence and heterogeneity in vision. These days a candidate can be pro-life, anti-tax, pro-immigration and content to let the states deal with marriage — and still be considered a leading conservative. In fact, Rand Paul and Rubio fit that description.

Those who quarrel with one or more parts of a candidate’s agenda can try to persuade the candidates or learn to live with disagreement or can find other candidates, but they should be forewarned: A conventional candidate who toes the line fixed decades ago may prove to be a very weak candidate.