The unfolding story of the Republican presidential race has become a maddening maze of uncomfortable choices for the GOP's increasingly fractured conservative base.
Each of the front-runners hold positions on bedrock issues that most conservatives agree with 90 percent of the time, but all of them also have something else in their background or record that is a deal breaker.
Arizona Sen. John McCain, the hawkish champion of the Iraq war and anti-pork-barrel crusader, hits all the right buttons on issue after issue, until you get to the party's core economic issue of tax cuts. He opposed all of the Bush tax-reduction bills, making him a political pariah among the party's dominant economic conservatives.
Former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, on the other hand, has a record of tax cuts and slashing the city's bureaucracy, fighting crime and leading a besieged city out of the 9/11 abyss in a career that has made his name synonymous with executive leadership.
But Giuliani is out of step with the GOP's long-held positions on abortion, gun controls, gay marriage and other social issues that trigger opposition to his candidacy from the party's social conservatives.
Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney has cloaked himself in the mantle of Ronald Reagan, vowing to carry on the tax-cut revolution and slay costly Big Government with his veto pen. But he is a late convert to the pro-life agenda, raising persistent questions about the sincerity of his newly held positions. Nowhere is the conservative angst over its choices in 2008 more amply demonstrated than with former Tennessee senator Fred Thompson, the star of TV's "Law and Order."
Thompson, who has yet to say whether he will be a candidate, has all the attributes that die-hard conservatives can love: hawkish on defense, tough on spending, a Reagan tax cutter to the core and good on social issues. But there are disturbing parts in his record, too, that bother many, if not most, conservatives, especially his support of the McCain-Feingold bill that prohibits issue-advocacy groups from running TV or radio ads to express their opposition or support in the midst of an election.
On this issue, Thompson was joined at the hip with McCain, despite the bill's questionable constitutionality that is now being litigated in the courts. It strikes at the heart of one of our most precious freedoms -- the freedom to advocate and promote one's beliefs in the marketplace of public opinion. Dubbed the "incumbent protection act," this law strikes at the very rights of all advocacy groups, especially the social and religious conservatives, that were in many ways one of McCain's key targets, the people he called "agents of intolerance."
The other disturbing part of Thompson's record is what else he did in the Senate: virtually nothing. He led no great crusades, nor did he win any medals for leadership. In fact, when he was called to lead the investigation into illegal campaign contributions from China to President Bill Clinton's 1996 campaign, the Democrats rolled Thompson.
Instead of tenaciously digging into the Chinagate scandal, following the money trail wherever it led, Thompson caved into Democratic demands for a strict time limit on the probe that ended prematurely, with little to show for it. So much for his leadership abilities.
All of this has turned the GOP's presidential sweepstakes into a wide-open horse race where the dominant but deeply divided conservative wing is no longer in full control of the party's nominating process.
The most recent manifestation of the party's political balkanization can be seen in the primary calendar battles that I reported in a recent column. Florida Republicans, thumbing their nose at party rules, have moved next year's primary to Jan. 29, ahead of all but four states, knowing it will result in penalties that would cut the state's 112-member convention delegation in half, reducing its conservative clout in choosing the nominee.
But this is a trade-off that the mega-state's GOP officials and Republican Gov. Charlie Crist are willing to make in exchange for becoming the kingmaker in next year's primary contests.
"Although the convention is important, whoever wins Florida on Jan. 29 will move into the Feb. 5 super primary day with great momentum and resources," Republican state chairman Jim Greer told me. But Crist, Greer and other state-party leaders have another political card up their sleeve that they hope will win them a waiver from the Republican National Committee's primary rules.
"There is some discussion that the nominee of our party could instruct the RNC not to impose the rule. I've heard nothing official, but it is behind-the-scenes discussion," Greer confided. "It would be of interest to see if that is a possibility."
Would the winner of the Florida primary -- where Giuliani is the clear front-runner -- promise state-party leaders such a reprieve to gain the full winner-take-all delegate bonanza if it would put him over the top? In an election cycle where it seems all the traditional party alliances and rules are being turned upside down, inside out, anything is now possible.