Republican voters in early presidential voting states like Iowa are increasingly looking past imperfections in a candidate's conservative record in exchange for someone who appeals to the broader electorate _ and might have a better chance of beating President Barack Obama.
It's a potentially beneficial development for Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who lead in national polls despite records that break with conservative orthodoxy in some areas. And it spells trouble for rivals like Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, businessman Herman Cain, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and others who have rock-solid conservative credentials but have struggled to break through and seemingly have a narrower base of support.
At least in Iowa and New Hampshire, some Republicans are shifting toward Romney and Perry _ at the others' expense.
"If we keep focusing on immigration and gay marriage, we're going to lose," said Kathy Potts, an Iowa Republican who had been a key volunteer for Santorum until switching to Perry in September. "He may not be perfect. But he can win. That's the most important thing."
In New Hampshire, Scott Hilliard was leaning toward supporting former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who has claimed he's the most electable but is struggling in polls. But now Hilliard says the times are tailored for Romney, a former CEO with decades of business experience.
"I don't agree with all of his positions on issues. But I really think our country is in dire need, and you can't solve any crisis until you have an understanding of it, and he understands it," said Hilliard.
Less than four months before Republicans start the series of nominating contests, the party's primary race has become a two-man affair with Republican voters moving toward someone who can beat Obama, who has a vastly different view of how to fix the economy than Republicans.
The 2012 race began taking shape amid a drumbeat of bad economic news: No net jobs were created in August, the government's long-term debt rating received a downgrade and the economy grew over the first half of 2011 at the weakest pace since the recession ended two years ago. Obama's answer is a jobs bill that includes $447 billion in new spending and higher taxes for wealthy Americans, the opposite of the spending and tax cuts Republicans favor.
Romney, who led in national GOP polls until Perry got in the race in August, is arguing that he's the strongest candidate to beat Obama because of his business background. He's hoping Republicans latch onto that message and put aside their doubts about his authenticity, reversals on some cultural issues, anger over the health care law he signed in Massachusetts that mandated coverage and skepticism about his Mormon faith.
Perry is laying claim to being the most electable by pointing to job growth in Texas on his watch. He's working to persuade voters to look beyond the bill he signed in Texas to allow undocumented immigrant children pay in-state tuition at Texas universities if they meet certain requirement, as well as his proposal to require sixth-grade girls in Texas to be vaccinated against a sexually transmitted virus that can cause cancer.
Voters are turning toward them both.
Bruce Keeney of Iowa was supporting Bachmann, but is now backing Perry, primarily because of his winning record in a big state.
Keeney, who came to hear Perry speak in Jefferson this month, disagrees with Perry's opposition to building a fence on the U.S. border with Mexico. But he admires Texas' economic growth under Perry and respects the governor's electoral prowess, including fending off a primary challenge last year. "I can live with the other stuff," said Keeney.
Iowa Republican Mitch Hambleton was drawn early to Cain's business background and evangelical profile.
But Hambleton doubts Cain can raise the money to compete for the nomination or challenge Obama. Hambleton, who calls himself a strong social conservative, is supporting Romney, despite the former governor's conversion to opposing abortion rights. "I can look past that," Hambleton said. "I know where he stands."
Mindful of what voters are craving, Romney and Perry are trying to cast each other as unelectable.
Romney has sought for the past several weeks to undercut the argument that Perry can win, assailing the Texas governor's support of wholesale changes to Social Security, a federal program millions of American seniors across the political spectrum depend upon. Perry has argued that Romney can't overcome the fact that he signed the Massachusetts health care law that Obama based the national one on _ and that's woefully unpopular.
That Republicans are putting electability over purity recalls the 2004 Democratic primary race.
The Iraq war was unpopular with Democratic primary voters. But activists in Iowa had doubts about anti-war outsider Howard Dean's chances against then-President George W. Bush and nominated Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, who voted for the resolution to go to war.
Today, Republicans have an equally unifying issue, the economy, which has only worsened since the campaign began in earnest last summer.
Struggling to remain relevant, Bachmann has started trying to convince conservatives to stick with one of their own.
Days ago, she warned that sacrificing principle for electoral expedience comes with a cost, saying: "When you settle, you may find out you're going to have some negative consequences to pay."