You could be forgiven for thinking that there were two Republican parties on display over the last few days at the Conservative Political Action Conference in suburban Washington.

On one side was the “compromise equals surrender” crowd led by Sens. Rand Paul (Ky.) and Ted Cruz (Tex.) with an assist from Sarah Palin and her Big Gulp soda. On the other was what passes for the party establishment, represented by former Florida governor Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.).

The two groups’ analysis of the current state of the Republican Party made it sound as though they were on two different planets. Cruz, who delivered the final speech of CPAC on Saturday night, insisted that “we’re winning right now.” Bush, who spoke 24 hours earlier, told attendees that “way too many people believe Republicans are anti-immigrant, anti-woman, anti-science, anti-gay, anti-worker.”

The divide apparent at CPAC has been reflected in Congress, where Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has struggled to lead a House conference strongly tinged with those who pledge fealty to the Paul/Cruz wing of the party. (See the political disaster known as “Plan B” during the “fiscal cliff” debate.) And Senate primaries shaping up in Iowa and Georgia also could demonstrate the party rift.

One recent episode typifies the split. Last week, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) referred to Cruz, Paul and Rep. Justin Amash (Mich.) as “wacko birds.” In his CPAC speech, Cruz offered this retort: “If standing for liberty and standing for the Constitution means you’re a wacko bird, then count me a proud wacko bird. I think there are more than a few other wacko birds gathered here today.”

While closing CPAC’s three day event, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), made reference to Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) calling Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) and Cruz “wacko birds” after Paul’s 13-hour filibuster. (The Washington Post)

All of which begs a very simple question: Can the Republican Party be led?

“I doubt it,” longtime Republican strategist Mike Murphy said. “We’ll be stuck in an age of chaos and factional warlords for a while. The battle royal will be the 2015 presidential primary season.”

In some ways, the split within the Republican Party is not unique. Parties that find themselves in the political wilderness often take an “eat their own” mentality in the near term before one side eventually wins.

Remember that Bill Clinton’s emergence in the early 1990s was greeted with massive skepticism by the liberal wing of the party that had reigned supreme for the previous two decades. Clinton’s victory in 1992 decisively ended the fight over the direction the Democratic Party would take.

“The party out of power never has a single focal point or even a common spokesperson,” said Ed Rogers, a veteran Republican lobbyist and confidant of former Mississippi governor Haley Barbour. “We have a congressional wing of the party, a governors wing, 2016 wannabes and assorted subgroups, all of which are divided themselves between establishment and anti-establishment factions.”

Of course, even if the Republican Party’s divide follows a similar trajectory, the next two years will be consumed with a series of small- and large-scale skirmishes for control of the party’s rudder — each of which has the capacity to diminish a Republican brand already damaged in the eyes of the American public.

And the desire among some within the GOP — the Paul/Cruz wing, primarily — to purge the party of those who do not closely adhere to what they believe are first principles poses a major threat to the long-held idea of what it means to be a Republican.

“Historically, the GOP is a coalition of social, economic and national-security conservatives,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.). “That is unlikely to change. The Rubio/Bush faction of the Republican Party recognizes this reality. Many in the libertarian wing of the party do not.”

The question before Republicans is, can they keep the party together — or at least all pushing in a similar direction — heading into the 2014 midterm election so the battle for the soul and leadership mantle of the GOP can be fought out in the 2016 presidential primary process?

And, if the Bush/Rubio side of the party winds up emerging victorious in that primary fight, does the Paul/Cruz wing line up behind the nominee or take what is already a hybrid of GOP and libertarian principles and try to remake the party in their own image through some sort of third-party means?

The challenge for Republicans, put simply, is this: Can the GOP go from “wacko birds” to the White House in three years’ time? Not easily.

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