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GOP identity crisis worsened Romney's primary struggle

With more endorsements by prominent Republicans and a new poll showing him leading next week’s Wisconsin primary, Mitt Romney is on the cusp of becoming the party’s presumptive nominee.

Yet it’s taken Romney far longer to win the nomination than most observers expected, especially against under-funded and under-organized competitiors.


Republicans and analysts point to several culprits: the proportional delegate system, Romney’s gaffes, his flip-flops, his message, even his Mormon faith.

But he's also been plagued this primary season by a Republican Party still in the midst of an identity crisis, which has made things rocky for the former governor (and former moderate) from Massachusetts.

First Thoughts: Romney to wrap it up?

A wave of conservative enthusiasm -- with the new “Tea Party” movement as its leading edge -- propelled Republicans to record victories in the 2010 midterm elections, which delivered them control of the House and gains in the Senate.

The new freshman class, though, demanded more purity from their leaders. The very enthusiasm that helped Republicans win back part of Congress hampered their ability to govern; House Speaker John Boehner encountered great difficulties in convincing the newly elected ideologues to join in legislative compromises.

These fratricidal squabbles continued into the presidential campaign, where conservatives have resisted, at virtually every turn until now, the opportunity to get onboard with the establishment-favored candidate who’s regarded as most electable: Romney. 

“There's clearly a bit of a crisis,” said former Delaware Rep. Mike Castle, a moderate Republican who was considered a shoo-in to win his state’s Senate seat in 2010 before losing a primary to the Tea Party-backed Christine O’Donnell.

“The division and savagely attacking of other Republicans when they don't vote the right way I think is very counterproductive,” added Castle, who is supporting Romney (ironically, along with O’Donnell). “I don't think that has appealed to some Republicans, and I'm sure it doesn't appeal to independents and Democrats.”

Other reasons why Romney has been unable to gel conservatives behind his candidacy are probably more technical. Republicans cite his campaign's shoddy work in courting conservatives, the new primary rules that prolong the nominating process, and the candidate's gaffes at key points in the campaign. Romney also struggled to shake his image as a “flip-flopper” at points in the campaign, an image underscored by a senior aide’s recent comment likening the candidate’s pivot to the general election to an Etch A Sketch.

But while Romney is hardly a perfect candidate for today’s Republican Party, such a mythical creature might not exist anywhere on the planet. In some important respects, Romney's troubles stem from a party that is re-fighting its internal struggles from 2010.

“I think it's directly attributable to the spirit of 2010,” said Ken Buck, one of the Tea Party-linked Senate candidates that year, said in reference to the former Massachusetts governor’s struggles.

While the Tea Party -- a group of especially conservative activists angered by the bailouts to the financial industry and President Barack Obama’s health care law -- helped give kindling to the GOP in 2010, its insistence on ideological fealty in Republican candidates was seen as a factor that limited their success.

Republicans were successful in retaking the House but fell short of winning the necessary seats in the Senate, where Tea Party-backed nominees in Nevada, Delaware, and Colorado lost in opportunities Republicans had hoped to gain.

(Other candidates backed by the Tea Party were able to win in states like Utah, Kentucky and Florida, however.)

NBC/Marist poll: Romney leads ahead of Wisconsin primary

But the fallout hasn’t been limited to those primaries; Boehner’s struggles to win the votes of conservative freshmen elected in 2010 are well-documented. Those freshmen have pushed their leader to hew to strictly conservative positions at major junctures in the last year and a half, fueling a perception of Republicans in Congress as an intransigent lot, while weakening the speaker’s bargaining position in fights over spending cuts and the debt ceiling.

The tug of war between ideological purity and practical politics has been on display, again, during the campaign for Republicans to pick their nominee versus Obama.

Romney has long been considered the tentative frontrunner to become the GOP’s nominee, and he appears poised now to accrue the necessary delegates to accomplish that task.

But this primary has been defined, if nothing else, than by the flailing search by conservatives to identify a more palatable alternative to Romney.

While he’s stayed steady in primary voter polls, a veritable merry-go-round of challengers -- Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Gingrich again, and now, Santorum again -- have overtaken him in the polls before fading.

Moreover, exit polls of the primary contests to date have borne out Romney’s struggles in winning over self-described “very conservative” primary voters -- the core of the modern Republican Party.

While Republicans of all stripes express confidence that the party will rally around the eventual nominee, the conservative wing of the party has been nothing less than dogged in its resistance to Romney.

Romney and his current main rival, Santorum, “reflect different parts of the Republican Party,” said Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole, one of the GOP’s veteran political strategists, who has remained neutral in the primary fight.

“Both of them have proven remarkably tough and durable -- it's like watching a great bar room fight. That's the kind of punching match that we're in right now,” Cole said. “In a sense, Republican voters want to be assured that whoever emerges is tough enough to go toe to toe with the president.”

Bachmann, the Minnesota congresswoman who represented the Tea Party in her presidential bid, acknowledged last week on “Morning Joe” that the Republican Party is “factionalized” at the moment.

But some Republicans argue that Romney’s struggles were essentially avoidable, and they blamed his campaign for doing a poor job of reaching out to conservatives.

Poll: Majority of GOP says Gingrich, Paul should end campaigns

A former chairman of a major state Republican Party, who is sympathetic to Romney’s candidacy and requested to speak anonymously in order to offer more candid analysis, argued that the former Massachusetts governor’s struggles were directly related to poor outreach.

“They’ve been unwilling or unable to close the deal among conservatives,” the chairman said of the Romney campaign.

“Why don’t they send someone to Grover’s meeting in D.C.?” added that person, referring to the weekly meeting of conservative activists hosted by anti-tax advocate Grover Norquist.

The suggestion was that Romney’s campaign was basically self-involved and did little to show conservatives that Romney was one of them -- an especially curious strategy given Romney’s presidential run in 2008, which was staked on running as the conservative alternative to John McCain.

“There’s no history there; they’ve never dated,” said Craig Shirley, a Reagan biographer whose public relations firm did work for the Gingrich campaign for a stretch this primary. “It’s a little hard to ask people to marry you when you haven’t courted them first.”

The Romney campaign’s strategy, though, has sought to maintain the candidate’s viability for the general election to the best of their ability. The Romney campaign has been nothing if not careful in navigating Romney through the briar patch of conservatives’ demands on the candidate.

But the primary campaign appears to have taken its toll; a Washington Post/ABC News poll released Wednesday had Romney’s unfavorable ratings at an all-time high. Romney will no doubt pivot toward the center in the general election, but he has more ground to make up than many Republicans would like.

“The question becomes: Can the eventual Republican candidate, diminished by the primary, come back and win the election,” said Castle.

But Buck, perhaps illustrating conservatives’ ambivalence toward Romney, said it would be “fascinating” to see really how competitive Romney would be versus Obama.

“The question is, which Mitt Romney?” he asked.