Harsh, take-no-prisoners rhetoric might frighten the children and horses (women are no longer easily scared), but that's the sharpness and liveliness that keeps good ideas coming and gives "conservative" and "liberal" real meaning. Even exaggerated, the rhetoric focuses expectations of where a candidate wants to take the country.
Mitt Romney, who clearly looked like a moderate as governor of Massachusetts, doesn't want to be one now. He makes fair points defending himself as a conservative governor elected to lead a liberal state -- perhaps the most liberal of all the states -- and insists that what he accomplished in Boston is not what he wants to accomplish in Washington. Massachusetts constituents demanded government-mandated health care, and when his Legislature, which was 85 percent Democratic, passed the legislation, he signed it. He had no leverage with a veto that could withstand an overwhelming Democratic majority. He says now that a similar national mandate is a bad idea. He promises that if elected, he would get rid of Obamacare. That doesn't sound like mush, but it's also fair to recall the folk aphorism that "what you do speaks so loud we can't hear what you say."
He wants to return maximum authority to the states to innovate and design health care solutions that work best when designed by the people who pay for them. States' rights and states' prerogatives sound pretty conservative.
Rick Santorum's rhetoric moves the social issues so far to the margins that he had to recruit his wife to reassure us that he's making noise louder than it sounds, much like Mark Twain's remark that some music is better than it sounds. "I think women have nothing to fear when it comes to contraceptives," Karen Santorum told CNN, because "he will do nothing on that issue." She says her husband wouldn't allow his religious belief to dictate policy, that he is really most concerned that Barack Obama is trying to force people to go against their conscience. Her defense would be more persuasive if John F. Kennedy's ringing defense of separation of church and state, which we thought had erased the traditional wariness of a Roman Catholic president, hadn't made him want to throw up. She paints an endearing picture of a supportive husband, cheerfully changing diapers, fixing supper and cleaning the kitchen when she was away on a book tour, but we're not electing a husband-in-chief.