Opinion: Purity vs. victory

The foul smell in the tent has been there all along, but divided Republicans were all learning to live with it and accommodate each other — Tea Party freshmen voted to increase the debt ceiling as old-guard Republicans slashed appropriations and embraced a harder line. 

United in their cause to bring down President Obama, Republicans of both camps now must choose a side in order to try and defeat him. The awkward marriage of Tea Party purists and establishment Republicans faces its first Dr. Phil moment as Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney battle it out for the GOP presidential nomination for the next six months or longer.

It has been more than a decade since Republicans had to choose a leader, but several decades since they faced a defining choice about the direction of the party. In 2000, Republicans chose George W. Bush, the compassionate conservative, over the straight-talking maverick, Sen. John McCainJohn McCainOvernight Defense: General warns State Department cuts would hurt military | Bergdahl lawyers appeal Trump motion | Senators demand action after nude photo scandal Senate lawmakers eye hearing next week for Air Force secretary: report House Intel chairman under fire from all sides MORE (R-Ariz.). Then McCain was the nominee in 2008, but Republicans didn’t resoundingly choose him, they merely ended up with him.

In 2012, will Republicans stick with tradition and choose Romney, this cycle’s second-timer? Not necessarily. Since the Tea Party helped Republicans surge to a majority in the House and pick up more Senate seats in 2010, the leaderless movement continues its fight to cleanse the GOP. Some Tea Party supporters have threatened to challenge House Speaker John BoehnerJohn BoehnerGOP rushes to vote without knowing full impact of healthcare plan Dem senator to reintroduce ‘buy American’ legislation GOP senators offer bill to require spending cuts with debt-limit hikes MORE (R-Ohio) in his own primary, and the question of purity vs. victory has yet to be answered by a majority of Republicans.

But that question must be answered soon. In their behind-the-scenes quest for endorsements and funders, Perry and Romney are working to hasten it. And while many Republicans still hope to put off the choice and or to keep it quiet, the tension has spilled out into the open and will affect the race from this point forward, and GOP unity on Capitol Hill as well.

Karl Rove and a majority of Bush Republicans will undoubtedly line up behind Romney; Vice President Cheney just opposed Perry in his last primary race for governor, when he was challenged by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison. Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty announced his support for Romney this week as Govs. Bobby Jindal (R-La.) and Brian Sandoval (R-Nev.) came out for Perry. Fred Barnes of the Weekly Standard declared Romney the victor of Monday’s debate, writing “seldom has there been as clear a winner.” Erick Erickson of RedState concluded Perry had won, though he conceded “only by default.” Conservative columnist Jonah Goldberg wrote Perry is in the “sweet spot,” because voters want to like their nominee, while Romney has “an authentic inauthenticity problem.” Mike Murphy, GOP strategist, tweeted after the debate that “listening to Perry try to put a complicated policy sentence together is like watching a chimp play with a locked suitcase.”

Perry has a record that could post serious problems with Tea Party conservatives — his big-government mandate of HPV vaccinations for girls, his support for “binational” health insurance for residents of Mexico and Texas who live along the border, his opposition to a border fence and his support of in-state tuition for children of illegal immigrants. Yet Tea Party conservatives have made it clear he is their choice over Romney. So has a majority of GOP primary voters — 42 percent of them chose Perry over Romney (26 percent) as having the best chance of beating Obama.

Can Perry win beyond the South, and can Romney ever win over enough Tea Party conservatives? The choice between them, that only primary voters will make, will decide the nomination and define the Republican Party for many years to come.

Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.