Donald Lambro

WASHINGTON -- Thus far, the maddening Republican storyline in the presidential election cycle is complicating the party's prospects of winning back the White House in 2012.

A clear majority of the American people disapprove of the job President Obama is doing, particularly on jobs and the economy, but the GOP's rank-and-file remains deeply divided over who their nominee should be.

Actually, they are worse than divided, which is not unusual in a large field of candidates. Some Republicans, if not many, do not like the choices they have and are looking around for a new contender to enter the presidential primary race in the 13 months before our nation goes to the polls next year.

That has left many uncommitted Americans on the sidelines, including campaign donors whose contributions will be critical to any serious bid for the White House.

The postwar history of presidential politics is clear on what it takes to win: plenty of time, preparation and money to mount a nationwide organization in all 50 states. This is not a game where a candidate can jump in at the 11th hour -- especially a candidate, no matter how worthy, who is not widely known.

For all practical purposes, the Republican race for the nomination has come down to two contenders, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

But there are others with sizable followings, including Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, backed by his die-hard libertarian supporters, and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, who draws strength from the Christian right, and even dark-horse business executive Herman Cain, who pulled an upset in the Florida straw poll, beating Perry and Romney by large margins.

Making the GOP's battle even more intense is the issue of party purity, which is expected in Republican primaries. But it has been become a more divisive issue this time, fueled in large part by the tea party conservatives who demonstrated their power in the 2010 midterm elections by toppling House Democrats from power.

In this case, though, it turns out that political purity, at least among the front-runners, is hard to find.

The newest example of this is Chris Christie, the blunt, tough-talking, take-no-prisoners New Jersey governor who made his reputation as a U.S. attorney who put a number of crooked officials -- Democrats and Republicans -- behind bars. In his first year and a half, he has balanced the state's budget, capped property taxes, cut retirement benefits for teachers and state employees, all without raising taxes.

However, he differs with his party on several fronts. He has suggested there ought to be a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants and that being here "without proper documentation is not a crime." He has supported some gun control laws as well as civil unions for homosexual couples.

But conservatives, who may not be aware of these positions, find his blunt speaking style appealing and are pleading for him to run, most recently when he spoke at the Reagan Presidential Library Tuesday night when he called Obama a "bystander in the Oval Office."

Even so, Christie has said he will not be a candidate for one big reason: He doesn't think he's ready. He wants to complete his term as governor, run for a second term, and show some major accomplishments before considering higher office.

Perry and Romney have problems with party purity as well.

Romney's biggest problem has been his enactment of a sweeping state health-care law that requires everyone who can afford it to buy private health insurance, as would Obamacare. He has said it is a state program dealing with a state problem, but has vowed to repeal one-size-fits-all Obamacare and to give waivers immediately to states to drop out.

His strength is his long business career as a venture capital investor whose company provided seed money for promising start-up businesses that, like Staples, grew into major job creators. His advisers think that the recession trumps all other issues.

"I know how to fix the economy. I know how to create jobs," he says.

Perry, on paper, looked like the answer to conservatives who do not trust Romney. He is a longtime conservative governor of a major state with a booming oil economy, no individual income tax, low tax rates and a stellar record of job creation.

But then came his approval 10 years ago of an in-state college tuition break given to children of illegal immigrants, which he defended in a recent debate, saying that anyone who opposed helping these kids get an education was "heartless."

After stinging criticism for his disjointed, often rambling performance in his last presidential debate, a chastened Perry retreated somewhat. Calling his remarks "inappropriate," Perry said he had been "over-passionate" in his answer. "I probably chose a poor word to explain that."

Romney, by the way, said he vetoed a similar state law.

As things stand now, Perry and Romney remain the front-runners in a primary season that begins in just three months, and that seems unlikely to change as things stand right now.

Perry, who surged into the lead soon after he entered the race, has clearly been wounded by his performance in the debates. Romney has made no missteps yet and has stayed focused like a laser beam on the salient issue that will decide the outcome of this election: the jobless Obama economy.

Party purity, all things considered, takes a back seat in that equation.


Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.