DISMISSED as a yawner of foregone conclusions, the Republican presidential primary grind has suddenly mutated into a lively scrap over the proper nature and future course of the party.
George W. Bush is still the inevitable nominee, but in recent comments distancing himself from some of the GOP's more throwback quarters and constituencies, he has stirred the party's hard right to anxiety and likely to action.
Expect a scramble on the religious/cultural/political right to settle on a paladin -- probably Steve Forbes: he can afford it -- to harry Mr. Bush from here on over his ideological apostasies.
Mr. Bush has sparked a re-examination that logically should have followed the very conservative Reagan years and that in fact seemed to be under way with George Bush's declaration of a "kinder, gentler" presidency.
The former vice president had a chance to lead his party back toward its traditional moderate conservatism but he was soon trimming to the right's blusters and his presidency petered out in a political muddle.
Now George W. -- though, mind you, conservative himself -- has picked a fight with the hard cases who have led recent Republican Congresses and have characterized the party in the absence of a president of its own. But does he mean it? And, if so, will he, unlike Dad, stick it out?
Balked in its attempt to give to the rich through a big tax cut, this Congress was settling for taking from the poor, gimmicking a budget balance by stretching out the tax credits that help low-income workers.
Mr. Bush first denounced, and quashed, the impulse as improperly proposing "to balance the budget on the backs of the poor," then went on within days to scold the party as catering to affluence and ignoring others' needs.
Could it be that his "compassionate conservatism" -- dismissed by Democrats as empty blather and by GOP conservatives as dangerous blather -- is actually something Mr. Bush is ardent about?
The congressional leadership has taken offense. The Christian Coalition's Pat Robertson says Mr. Bush threatens to "alienate the core conservatives of the Republican Party." Right-wing mouthpiece Rush Limbaugh, near giving up on Bush, asked, "Who wants a Republican moderate as president?"
Good question. The likely answer is "more voters than not." Perhaps Mr. Bush figures his nomination is such a sure thing he can start marginalizing the party's doctrinal enforcers before, rather than after, its ratification.
Sharp partisan differences will remain if Mr. Bush moves his party back toward the center as Bill Clinton has moved his. (Abortion, for one.) But for the first time in years, the proximity might make compromise, at least on a few matters, more likely than futile battle.
Tom Teepen is national correspondent for Cox Newspapers.