Video: Tim Russert on the stakes in S.C.

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updated 1/18/2008 3:49:56 PM ET 2008-01-18T20:49:56
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At this rate, Ron Paul, Rudy Giuliani, and even Fred Thompson ought to be practicing their victory speeches. Heck, maybe Alf Landon and Wendell Willkie should be warming up in that great green room in the sky.

Four Republican presidential contests this year have produced three winners, two mornings of panic on the right, and one inescapable conclusion: None of the GOP presidential contenders is anywhere close to unifying the divided and discouraged party. "The candidates all have limitations," says Peter Wehner, the former White House director of strategic initiatives for President Bush, "but their limitations are being magnified because of the state of the party."

The mornings of conservative panic came after Mike Huckabee won Iowa and John McCain won New Hampshire. Each candidate enrages elements of the Right, especially (but not exclusively) those focused on economic issues. Earlier this week, Rush Limbaugh sounded as if he needed someone to talk him off a ledge about the two men's ascent. "If either of these two guys get the nomination," Limbaugh declared, "it's going to destroy the Republican Party."

Conservative leaders exhaled Wednesday after Mitt Romney (who earlier captured the Wyoming caucus) slowed Huckabee and McCain by defeating them in Michigan. But the Right's respite is likely to be brief. That's not only because McCain or Huckabee could revive by winning in South Carolina on January 19.

The larger problem is that no Republican candidate has energized the social, economic, and foreign-policy components of the modern conservative coalition. That means that whoever wins this competition could inherit a fractured party in which at least one significant bloc of voters will be unenthusiastic, at best, about the outcome. "That's one of the biggest dangers right now for the Republican nominee," says Wehner, a senior fellow at the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center.

Rate candidates' positionsSo far, the Republican race has highlighted the candidates' vulnerabilities more than their strengths. Giuliani always faced hostility from social conservatives, but he initially ran well among moderates and voters who were focused on national security. A succession of Giuliani stumbles through the fall, though, allowed McCain to capture most of that terrain, pushing the New Yorker to the edge of elimination in Florida later this month.

Of course, the senator from Arizona still faces his own hurdles. As in 2000, McCain carried independents and moderates in New Hampshire and Michigan this month. But in both states he struggled among Republicans and, especially, conservatives -- again, just as in 2000.

In Michigan, conservative Republicans preferred Romney over McCain by 2-to-1, the exit poll found. Those results demonstrated that for all of McCain's appeal to national security hawks, he hasn't erased entrenched resistance from tax-cutters, immigration hard-liners, and assorted other conservative leaders who were antagonized by his willingness to compromise with Democrats on issues from campaign finance reform to judicial nominations.

Decision '08 leaderboardHuckabee seems trapped in an even more confining niche. While he has run well among evangelical Christians, he attracted just single-digit support from Michigan and New Hampshire voters who did not consider themselves born-again. With his comments in Michigan about amending "the Constitution so it's in God's standards," Huckabee seems determined to define himself ever more narrowly as an identity-politics candidate for Christians.

Fred Thompson fans once hoped his appeal could span the party, but even with some stirring in South Carolina, his expiration date may be approaching. That leaves Romney as the contender with probably the best chance of mollifying all of the party's major elements.

In these first contests, Romney has attracted broader support than any other candidate among Republicans and independents, moderates and conservatives. His support, though, has shown more breadth than depth, and he, too, faces resistance -- from evangelicals uneasy about his Mormon faith and from an assortment of conservatives skeptical about his convictions after he set a more moderate course as Massachusetts governor. And although Romney appears best positioned to unite the broadest range of Republicans, polls show that as a potential nominee he lags with independents -- possibly because of his gyrations on so many issues.

With the race so mercilessly revealing the limitations of all the contenders, can it be long before some leading Republicans start asking if the party has anyone else back there on the shelf?

Copyright 2012 by National Journal Group Inc.

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