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Republicans put their family feud on display

By Gloria Borger, CNN Chief Political Analyst
updated 5:53 AM EST, Wed January 18, 2012
Republicans differed sharply on many issues in Monday's South Carolina debate.
Republicans differed sharply on many issues in Monday's South Carolina debate.
  • Republicans are exposing their internal divisions for all to see, Gloria Borger says
  • They're unhappy with Obama policies but even more unhappy with each other, she says
  • Borger: The tea party has turned out to be less united and formidable than thought
  • She says many tea partiers seem willing to give Mitt Romney a chance

Washington (CNN) -- "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

With apologies to Leo Tolstoy, his masterpiece "Anna Karenina" -- and its opening line -- comes to mind when spending some time with the GOP field. They're an unhappy brood all right -- dissatisfied with President Barack Obama, with the economy, with what they consider overregulation, with deficits, with big government, with the tax code.

But mostly, they're unhappy with each other. Mitt Romney, the new target of choice, is derided as a moderate or a "vulture" capitalist, as if he should be sent to the slammer. Newt Gingrich attacks Bain Capital, then calls on his super PAC to stop lying about Bain Capital. Rick Santorum says he's the only true values conservative; Ron Paul says his values lie in the Constitution. And Rick Perry, well, he has a message for all his "insider" opponents: I'm not one of you because I want to cut the pay of Congress and make them go home and get real jobs half of the year.

Gloria Borger
Gloria Borger

Hey, at least it's a guaranteed applause line in a debate.

The feuding is telling. The GOP -- united in its goal of defeating Obama -- is opening its internal divisions for public consumption. Tea party conservatives -- often blue collar -- pitted against the old line GOP elite. Evangelical leaders lined up against the Republican establishment. Muscular foreign policy interventionists versus the isolationists and foreign aid naysayers.

Watching the primaries play out as the candidates play off each other has been entertaining, sure. But mostly, it's been instructive about a party in transition -- struggling mightily to avoid an establishment candidate, but now likely to nominate one.

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Some observations:

The tea party is not all powerful, and maybe not powerful at all. Having had such a huge impact on the 2010 midterm elections -- handing the House to the GOP -- we all assumed the new force would be with us again this election year. As it turns out, these primary voters -- looking for a new kind of candidate -- could not coalesce around one. They moved like hummingbirds from Michele Bachmann to Perry to Herman Cain to Gingrich, but their affections were unsustainable.

The surprise -- which could also represent the greening of the movement -- is the way that tea partiers have decided to give Romney a chance. In Iowa he tied with Paul, with 19% support among that group, while Santorum came in first. In New Hampshire, Romney came in first, capturing 40% of those who support the tea party movement.

It's not that tea partiers love Romney; they don't. It's just that he's done well enough with them, which is all he needs. Consider this: South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, a tea party fave, has endorsed Romney. And, even more to the point, Sen. Jim DeMint, the tea party's political inspiration, is staying out of the endorsement game. In not ruling Romney out, he has done him a huge favor.

As for evangelicals, their impact has been diluted in much the same way as the tea party. Their endorsement of Santorum last weekend came about six months too late. If they had gotten their act together, they might have affected the contest at the grass roots. Not that endorsements matter as much as they used to, but pastors can have an outsized influence if they unite in a state like South Carolina. But that won't happen.

That brings me to Romney himself. The lesson here is that Romney learned from his failure to launch four years ago. Experience matters at this level when you actually make good use of it. And, in his Bain-ish way, Romney looked at his failure, deconstructed it and decided one important thing: To control the debate, he would look forward, not backward.

He would blunt attacks on his past record by pointing to his current one. He addressed his Mormonism last time, so no need to do it again. And he would defend his health care plan -- as appropriate for Massachusetts but not the nation -- without backing away from it. In other words, he would not flip-flop.

It helped, in a big way. Imagine my surprise when, in the CNN/ORC International Poll out last week, Republicans rated Romney as the person best able to handle health care. Wow. A vote of confidence for the man who supported a plan with mandates in Massachusetts? He must be doing something right.

In the end, what's stunning about this political season of outsiders and tea partiers and anti-government enthusiasts is that we are likely to wind up with two presidential candidates who defy the popular trend: Ivy League-educated, elite and aloof politicians. Members of the same political clan, as Tolstoy might see it. Ah, but unhappy in very different ways.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Gloria Borger.

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