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.
Romney and Santorum have emerged as the faces of the Republican Party, and those faces reflect the split between fiscal conservatives and social conservatives. The split is real, but not insurmountable. Romney took big steps toward the nomination with a decisive victory in Illinois -- where, for the first time, close to a majority of Republicans voted for the man with an emphasis on economic, not social, policy. The message they sent is that Job 1 is to replace President Obama; their concerns are about continued high unemployment, the price of gasoline, and a national debt that threatens to forfeit their children's future.
"Don't make (the election) about who can best manage Washington or be the CEO of the economy," Santorum told Illinois voters. Well, he might say that, because many Republicans see him as Romney describes him, "an economic lightweight." The two men are not far apart in their appreciation of the peril in the Obama view of the world. There's a deep and wide gulf between them on the economy. That's where President Obama has failed, and that's where new leadership has to take us.
Romney's repeated description of himself -- as the candidate who knows business, who has experience in the private sector, who learned firsthand how high taxes destroy entrepreneurial job creation and how balanced budgets determine whether businesses thrive or fail -- has become cliched. But that, it seems to me, is what we must remember. The president's regulators, he observes, would have shut down the Wright brothers for "dust pollution" and banned Thomas Edison's light bulb for overheating the atmosphere.
Geoffrey Kabaservice -- in his new book, "Rule and Ruin" -- sounds the lament that moderates have disappeared from the Grand Old Party. He regrets that Mitt is not more like his father, George, who self-destructed as an early Republican candidate for president in 1968. But the campaign of 2012 is about conservative principles directing economic freedom. There's nothing moderate about that.