In this, they were playing catch-up with Mitch Daniels, Indiana's extremely effective governor and putative front-runner among conservative policy wonks, the Bush family and insomniacs. Daniels yanked away collective-bargaining rights for public workers years ago, without the Sturm und Drang that accompanied Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's more tepid reforms. Just this month, Daniels successfully withdrew all state funding of Planned Parenthood, a holy grail for social conservatives.
Daniels, however, also steadfastly refuses to sign anti-tax activist Grover Norquist's pledge to never raise taxes. He famously called for a "truce" on social issues, which social conservatives translate as "surrender" to the left since they rightly believe that the left is the aggressor in the culture war. And last week he playfully suggested he might tap former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as his running mate. Floating a pro-choice veep is not the way to reassure social conservatives.
For those paying attention, these should be fascinating developments given the perennial claims that the GOP base is too right wing, extremist and closed-minded to tolerate such philosophical diversity. (And with the exception of Gingrich and Paul, there are no Southerner candidates in a party allegedly captured by the South.)
Does all this mean that the GOP has re-embraced its Nelson Rockefeller roots? Of course not.
But it does hint that this year's primary season won't involve a replay of the dreadful 2008 debates in which the candidates auditioned to play the part of Ronald Reagan in the school play.
It also suggests that the front-runners -- a group that includes former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty -- might be ahead of the rank and file of the GOP.
Come November, it is very unlikely that conservative voters will stay home. So, barring a truly fringe GOP nominee, they will vote against Obama no matter what. Already, the conversation on the right is moving toward the all-important question of "electability" -- i.e., which candidate can peel off the handful of moderates and independents needed to win in an election that will be a referendum on Obama and his record.