As the four surviving Republican presidential aspirants fight over which of them is the "true" conservative, are any of them aware that millions of moderates and, yes, quite a few liberals will also be voting in November?
The views emanating from the Grand Old Party these days are pretty much devoid of middle-ground opinions and certainly of liberal sentiments. The merry band of real or masquerading right-wingers still competing for their party's nomination is so focused on preaching to the choir of conservatives that the rest of the country could be writing them off.
The reality in our essentially two-party system is that winning the party nomination is the price of admission to the general election in the fall. In the Democratic ranks, President Barack Obama, with no primary challenge, has a free ticket.
But the surviving four Republicans have no such luck. The dominance of conservatism in the GOP requires them to follow a version of the old Barry Goldwater axiom that extremism is no vice, in this case in pursuit of a convention majority. So they tear each other apart over which of them most embraces the true faith and which is just an agnostic.
Of the four, Mitt Romney most clearly is suspected of falling into the latter category, obliging him to bend over backward with ludicrous posturing, such as his claim that he is "severely" conservative. At the other end is Rick Santorum, who sounds more Catholic than the Pope in defending religious freedom, and in accusing the departedJohn F. Kennedy of causing him indigestion with his 1960 preaching of separation of church and state.
The latest fallout from the Republican Party requirement to genuflect before the deity of pure conservatism is the decision of Senate Republican moderate Olympia Snowe of Maine to announce her retirement after 33 years in Congress.
As one of the few reliable advocates of compromise on the right side of the aisle in the Senate, Ms. Snowe acknowledged that she finds it "frustrating ... that an atmosphere of polarization and my-way-or-the-highway ideologies has become persuasive in campaigns and in our governing institutions. I see a vital need for the political center in order for our democracy to flourish and to find solutions that unite rather than divide us."
What remains of a center in Republican ranks is also being targeted by the tea party in primary challenges this spring to generally conservative longtime Sens. Richard Lugar in Indiana and Orrin Hatch in Utah. So this year's GOP presidential hopefuls obviously feel reaching out to moderates, who make up much of the independent vote in a general election, will have to come later if they are nominated.
Going into last week's primaries in Michigan and Arizona, Mr. Santorum seemed to have been the main beneficiary of the "pure conservative" debate, with Newt Gingrich shunted to the sidelines. Mr. Santorium's near-miss in Michigan against homeboy Mitt Romney kept him in the spotlight.
However, Mr. Gingrich will be back in the picture on Tuesday with his own home state of Georgia the largest delegate prize of the 10 Super Tuesday battlegrounds. He will also be seeking revival in two other Southern states, Tennessee and Oklahoma, as the candidate of Dixie after his one convincing victory in South Carolina. His presence in these states could, however, be more helpful to Mr. Romney than to himself, if he cuts into Mr. Santorum's conservative votes among the heavy pool of churchgoers and particularly evangelicals in the region.
The importance of organization or lack thereof is illustrated in Virginia, where both Messrs. Gingrich and Santorum failed to file sufficient petitions in a timely manner to get on the primary ballot Tuesday. Only Mr. Romney and Ron Paul will compete in another Southern state that could have helped Mr. Gingrich as well as Mr. Santorum, who now lives there.
Of all the states voting on Super Tuesday, the most closely watched will be Ohio, where all four survivors are on the ballot. As the only Rust Belt state in the bunch, Ohio's result may tell more about the ultimate outcome in November, when more than conservative purity will be a determining factor.
Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Memo to the GOP: Not everyone is a conservative