Now that the seven Republican presidential hopefuls have had their last televised debate before the Jan. 3 Iowa precinct caucuses, they have barely two weeks of on-the-ground campaigning to answer the two key questions facing the voters.
The big one for most Republicans is a general-election matter: which candidate is best positioned to beat President Obama? The second is more immediately relevant to the fight for the GOP nomination: which of them is the most conservative?
Both questions were repeatedly raised in the 13 debates culminating in the last one Thursday night in Sioux City. All seven contenders insisted they were the most electable, while elbowing each other for the mantle of Mr. (or Ms.) True Conservative in urgent courtship of the party's right-wing base.
The focus on the latter question necessarily cast the whole pack of them in the mold of only part of the national constituency. When the country votes for president next November, Democrats and independents also will have a strong say. Many of them will be looking not for the most conservative candidate but for somebody more moderate and centrist, as most voters profess to be.
Consequently, while the television debates have put the Republican race on display as a contest over conservative purity, they have has also revealed the party's extreme devotion to an ideology that is not universally shared on Main Street America. In striving for GOP nomination among the faithful, collectively the candidates risk serving up a brand of politics that may well not be electable next year.
An overriding caveat to this scenario could be the intense desire of all the Republican candidates, and of millions of party loyalists and non-Republicans, to beat Barack Obama. But the fact that polls show that the president remains comparatively high in popularity compared to members of both parties in Congress challenges that caveat.
In the last televised debate, Newt Gingrich having surged to the front of the pack, his checkered career as a figure of questionable ethics and dealings in his professional and personal life came to the fore, in terms of both electability and conservative fidelity.
Most of his challengers zeroed in on his conservative credentials, which he tried to laugh off by citing his experience campaigning with right-wing icons Ronald Reagan and Jack Kemp over his 30 years in public life. The heaviest blows were struck not by Mitt Romney, his strongest opponent right now, but by Michele Bachmann, who relentlessly touts herself as Ms. True Conservative while sinking like a ship taking on water.
She hammered Gingrich as a shameless influence peddler with "his hand out" for $1.6 million in consulting fees from Freddie Mac, the government-sponsored mortgage lender he previously had criticized. She, Rick Perry and Ron Paul all mocked Mr. Gringrich's technical defense that he "never lobbied under any circumstance."
In all this, Mr. Gingrich barely resisted trotting out his unattractive self-importance, describing himself at one point as "a national figure who was doing just fine, doing a variety of things, including writing best-selling books, making speeches." The self-identified historian also dusted off an 1802 reference to Thomas Jefferson's efforts to get rid of certain federal judges, by way of illustrating what good company he is in by making a similar proposal regarding certain liberals on the appellate bench.
The candidates, moderated by four Fox News celebrities, were tossed a particularly softball question, such as who their favorite Supreme Court justice was. They dutifully cited the right-wing quartet of John Roberts, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito. So much for eliminating doubt about their own true conservative credentials.
The debates may well have helped fellow conservative voters decide which of the pack is the ideologically purest of all. In that equation, Mr. Romney still struggles. Whether that helps them pick the most electable nominee a year from now may be an entirely different matter. Except for libertarian Mr. Paul and longshot moderate Jon Huntsman, the Republican Party on display during the debate marathon of the last several months has showed itself to be a pretty narrow one.
Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former longtime writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is email@example.com.