In the months before an election, I always caution that it’s foolish to take today’s headlines and extrapolate them out to the next election.  Well, a little extrapolation is now in order. For Republican leaders, and soon for Republican voters, the time for hand-wringing and uncertainty is being forced to a conclusion. With the holiday schedule, there are, give or take, only 14 campaign days left before the voting starts.

There has been a lot of talk in the Republican primary debate about who has been the more consistent conservative. That question is hard to answer in the current field.  Given that today’s core Republican base is generally angry, and demands less spending, less taxes, and less government. The easiest answer to give would be that the most consistent conservatives in this mold have been Rick Santorum and Michele Bachmann. Everyone else’s claim to classic conservatism has been clouded by libertarian absolutism,  compromises made while they served in government, a moderate tone, and at times, pliable and nuanced positions on social issues and some with some government programs.

But the reality is, the race for the GOP nomination is coming down to be between former speaker Newt Gingrich and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney.

Gingrich’s supporters make the case that, as a voting member of Congress, he had a 90 percent rating from the American Conservative Union. Yet, some of Newt’s past — dealing with President Clinton, the famous loveseat picture with Rep. Nancy Pelosi and other such examples — prevent him from fitting neatly into the pure conservative mold.  Most recently, his suggestion that U.S. Marshals or other law enforcement officials could be used to forcibly compel judges to appear before Congress is anything but conservative.  If President Obama had made such a suggestion, Republicans would be apoplectic and gasping for air.

Newt offers stern, ideological realism more than Reagan-esque conservatism.  His brand of conservatism offers clarity that, at times, forces voters to contemplate harsh realities and uncomfortable scenarios. 

Romney, on the other hand, has a moderate demeanor and displays an eagerness to please. Positions he took to try to appeal to the middle while running for office in Massachusetts are hard for the base of the Republican Party to reconcile with their mood today.  Romney offers less certainty in his views, but he makes the case that a Romney-led Republican ticket would have broader appeal.

Certainly starting today, endorsements matter and are worth watching. Endorsers sometimes are just making an early bet, hoping to grow stronger if their candidate wins, but they also have to calculate who would be the strongest at the top of the ticket to carry their state and perhaps, have coattails, or at least do no harm in down-ballot races.  Romney is securing endorsements in part because many Republican leaders are fearful of what might happen with Newt leading the ticket.  They worry that Newt might create a downdraft that could sink some House and Senate candidates, as well as Republicans running for State and local offices.

Also, as the weaker candidates begin to drop out, where their supporters go matters. Obviously, both candidates need different types of help within the Party. If Jon Huntsman, who is viewed as electable but can’t win the nomination, endorses Newt, that endorsement says something that Newt needs to be said — i.e., that he can have moderate, thoughtful appeal. Similarly, if Bachmann endorses Romney, it says Romney is okay with the Tea Party, and that would be a powerful statement.

Newt’s challenge is to convince Republicans that he can win and won’t make the GOP ticket weaker.  Romney’s challenge will be to convince Republicans that he has reformed, and he isn’t another tame, get-along go-along Republican who will cave in once he is in Washington.