Outsiders vs. Insiders: The Struggle for the GOP's Soul

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Brooks Kraft / Corbis for TIME

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Real Candidates vs. Marketing Geniuses
There was a third bracket, but it has pretty much imploded now. This was the celebrity/reality-TV/talk-show wing of the party — candidates more interested in promoting themselves (or their books, or their TV shows) than in actually running for President. They dominated the early campaign and created the impression that the Republican Party had gone bonkers. There was the Donald Trump moment, during which the sleazeball casino and construction Barnum rose to second in the horse-race polls by cynically questioning Barack Obama's nativity, then fled the field before anyone could investigate his own bona fides. There is the never ending, surreal Sarah Palin Marketing Tour, most recently conducted by bus, rudely stepping on Romney's official announcement by swooping into New Hampshire and stealing the press coverage. There was Newt Gingrich's latest meltdown: he seemed to envisage his campaign as a luxury cruise featuring his Tiffany-bedizened third wife. Worse for Republicans, he handed the Democrats a nuclear weapon when he called Paul Ryan's Medicare-privatization plan "right-wing social engineering."

The adolescent, steroid-enhanced narcissism of the reality-TV bracket must have been a horrific jolt to actual conservatives — that is, people who are subdued in demeanor, fiscally prudent and skeptical of change. It raised the very un-Republican possibility of chaos. "People say this is a weak field, and that's true: it's not a Hall of Fame field, but we've seen worse, and candidates challenging an incumbent President always seem weak," says Dan Schnur, a former Republican operative and now director of the University of Southern California's Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics. "Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton were both considered weak at this point in the process."

Schnur believes the mild panic over the quality of the Republican field actually represents a deeper anxiety. "What Republicans are really concerned about is the lack of clarity," he says. "Republicans are used to knowing what — and who — comes next. This time, they have no idea." There is, even among Romney admirers, the belief that he lacks the deftness to surf the new wave. "You get the sense that he'll be hanging on by his fingernails in New Hampshire and some new face — who knows who? — will suddenly catch fire in Iowa or pop in New Hampshire," says Mark McKinnon, a strategist who worked on both George W. Bush campaigns. "That's a Democratic sort of scenario. It happened to the Dems in 2004, when John Kerry emerged at the last moment. This is uncharted territory for Republicans."

Economic Conservatives vs. Social Conservatives
There was some expectation in the media that the riot of narcissism would continue in the first real Republican debate, in New Hampshire on June 13, starring Romney as the designated piñata. But that didn't happen. Initial debates are usually tepid affairs, with the candidates hoping to make a pleasant first impression, knowing that there will be a mind-numbing number of similar contests down the road, saving their ammunition for the appropriate moment. Indeed, this debate was defined by a flinch: Pawlenty was asked to elaborate on his snide attack on Romney's Massachusetts health care plan — he had called it Obamneycare — but he demurred, awkwardly. Pawlenty was thereby caught in the act of acting like a politician, which is the most common mistake inexperienced candidates make when the big lights go on. Romney, by contrast, seemed comfortable in his own skin — the most important positive quality a candidate can display — a far cry from his sweaty robot impersonations in 2008. (This is Romney's not-so-secret advantage over his most plausible opponents: he's done it before.)

But if the debate lacked flash, it was instructive. It set the ideological parameters for the coming campaign. The candidates locked themselves in a philosophical space about the size of Rush Limbaugh's radio studio. It took nearly an hour before any of them spoke well of a government program, when Herman Cain grudgingly acknowledged that the Food and Drug Administration's meat and vegetable inspections were probably a good thing. At one point, Romney made this statement: "I think fundamentally there are some people — and most of them are Democrats, but not all — who really believe that the government knows how to do things better than the private sector. And they happen to be wrong." Which raised the possibility that Romney might want to privatize the military. Everything else certainly seems to be on the table — Cain wants to privatize Social Security; Gingrich wants to privatize NASA; most seem willing to voucherize Medicare along Congressman Paul Ryan's lines.

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