The Stumbling Blocks to a Big GOP Win

A big GOP year? Perhaps, but a much fiercer battle for primacy inside the Republican Party is already under way

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Peter van Agtmael for TIME / Magnum

USA. Des Moines, Iowa. 2010. Iowa GOP Ronald Reagan dinner headlined by Sarah Palin

At a recent debate in Kansas' 3rd Congressional District, the Republican candidate Kevin Yoder was a machine. The Democrats tax too much and spend too much. Tax and spend. Tax and spend. Nancy Pelosi. He mentions Pelosi no fewer than eight times. He doesn't mention Barack Obama once. The way to revive the economy, he says, is to stop the uncertainty. Extend the Bush tax cuts. Stop cap and trade. Limit government regulation. The muddy, inconsequential answers of his Democratic opponent, Stephene Moore, who is running to replace her incumbent husband, only serve to reinforce Yoder's crispness. The woman suffers from lack of experience and a chronic Democratic disease: compound sentences. Asked about illegal immigration — a big issue in the heartland — Moore begins, "Well, this is a top priority for a lot of people," and wanders off into abstraction. Yoder says, inaccurately, that the situation is getting worse and adds another simple sentence: "We need to close the border."

I suspect that Yoder has the upper hand in this slightly Republican district. But there is a complicating factor: a third candidate, a libertarian named Jasmin Talbert, an unemployed geophysicist. She isn't much of a presence in the debate — a lesser libertarian compared with her more inspired co-religionists, who can spin brilliant, if bloodless, Ayn Rand fantasies of a liberated American nirvana. But if Talbert wins any votes, she's going to take them from Yoder, not the Democrat. And if the race is close, that could make a difference. The situation illuminates a larger Republican dilemma: this is likely to be a big year for them, but not an easy one. The Tea Party, libertarian and establishment wings are fighting for primacy. The seeds of a 2012 primary tong war are being planted.

That night, in Des Moines, Sarah Palin gives a speech to the Iowa Republican Party that should be a joyous kickoff to her 2012 presidential flirtation. But it's a mean, mingy thing — a lot of personal pique and inside baseball. She's clearly not pleased with the press, especially Vanity Fair magazine, which ran a tough profile of her. U.S. soldiers are dying to preserve the right to free speech, and journalists are using that right to lie. She's also het up about the Republican establishment, which was freaked out by the victory of Palin protégé and former witchcraft dabbler Christine O'Donnell in the Delaware Senate race. "We need people," Palin says, "who are willing to shake things up."

There are certainly plenty of those in the Republican Party this year — and in toss-up states like Colorado, they have a problem. A few days after Palin's speech, I interview Ken Buck, the Republican candidate for Senate in Colorado who defeated a former lieutenant governor and pillar of the GOP named Jane Norton in a tough primary. Buck is a stone conservative, but it's hard to know exactly how far to the right of Genghis Khan he is, since the primary was a righter-than-thou affair that pushed both candidates off to the periphery in search of votes. At one point, a reporter caught Buck famously expressing frustration that his Tea Party supporters couldn't put a lid on the "dumb asses" questioning Barack Obama's citizenship. I ask him about the civil war in his party, and he says, "The Republicans were every bit as much to blame as the Democrats for the out-of-control spending." George W. Bush was surrounded by "compassionate neoconservatives," he says. And Bush's No Child Left Behind program unduly expanded the federal role in education.

I ask Buck how he would have voted on the huge Medicare prescription-drug plan that Bush enacted without paying for it. "I would have opposed it because it was unfunded," he says, but then realizes he is no longer in a GOP primary and adds, "I'm not saying it's a bad program ... but I would have opposed the unfunded nature of it." And that is Buck's obstacle in a nutshell: the extreme positions he took in the primary have to be modified for November. Sometimes, as he walks them back, he retreats to compound sentences worthy of a Democrat.

After interviewing Buck, I went to a candidate forum at a Denver synagogue. The Democrats weren't terrible. Ed Perlmutter, an incumbent Congressman, roused the crowd when he recounted the assorted outrages of the Bush years. But another Democratic incumbent, Jared Polis, had heads shaking when he said that securing the rights of gays and lesbians in countries like Iraq was one of his top three foreign-policy priorities. And the biggest laugh line of the night came from a Republican Congressman, Doug Lamborn, who said, "If heavy government spending built economies, then Greece should be the most prosperous country in Europe." It should be as simple as that for Republicans this year, but it isn't.