Eventually, the 2012 Republican presidential primary race will boil down to just two candidates. One will be the establishment candidate and the other will be the conservative candidate.
Either would have a real chance of beating Barack Obama in the general election, but the conservative candidate would have the better chance.
As early as it is, the Republican Party's internal "establishment" primary is almost over. Only two candidates are now competing for that nod: former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman -- who most recently served as Obama's ambassador to China.
In the RealClearPolitics average of national polls, Romney leads the Republican field with 25 percent. Huntsman trails the field with 2 percent. If Huntsman can triple his support to 6 percent, he will nudge ahead of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who is at 5 percent, but still lag behind Rep. Ron Paul, who is at 6.5 percent.
When people start casting votes in the early Republican contests this winter -- the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary -- Romney will still be a viable candidate. Huntsman may not make it even that far.
So, if Romney is likely to be the establishment Republican candidate, who will emerge as the conservative candidate?
Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty gave a good indicator Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press."
Host David Gregory asked Pawlenty, "What makes you different than Congresswoman (Michele) Bachmann?"
"Well, I like Congresswoman Bachmann," Pawlenty responded.
"I've campaigned for her," he said. "I respect her.
"But her record of accomplishment in Congress is nonexistent. It's nonexistent," Pawlenty continued. "And so we're not looking for folks who, you know, just have speech capabilities, we're looking for people who can lead a large enterprise in a public setting and drive it to conclusion. I've done that, she hasn't."
Gregory -- a predictable establishment-media liberal -- then invited Pawlenty to bash Bachmann for being "too controversial" (which is liberal-speak for someone who is outspokenly conservative) and for possessing "a temperament that's not suitable for the presidency" (which is liberal-speak for someone who does not cower when the establishment media attempts to intimidate her into abandoning her principles).
Unlike former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who in May accepted Gregory's invitation to bash Rep. Paul Ryan and his budget plan, Pawlenty answered shrewdly.
"Congresswoman Bachmann and I ... share many of the same issue positions," Pawlenty told Gregory. "We're both conservatives. I think the main difference is this -- I've got executive leadership in a public setting with a record of accomplishment and results under difficult and challenging circumstances, and she has served in Congress. And in that regard, her record of accomplishment is, you know, like I said, nonexistent."
Notice that Pawlenty did not try to distance himself from Bachmann on the issues. He did not try to get to her right -- or to her left. He wanted to signal to voters that, philosophically, he stands right there -- on the right -- with Bachmann.
He used his agreement with her to ratify his own conservative credentials.
But, assuming that Pawlenty and Bachmann truly do take essentially the same stands on the issues (a fact likely to be either demonstrated or refuted by deeper research into their records and more direct debates as the campaign moves forward), will Pawlenty's argument that he is a superior candidate to Bachmann because he was a governor in Minnesota while she was a congresswoman in Washington, D.C., actually pry away conservative caucus and primary voters from Bachmann and deliver them to Pawlenty?
I doubt it.
When Pawlenty points out that Bachmann has only been able to demonstrate her commitment to the principles they both share by serving in Congress, what he is in effect saying is Bachmann has already demonstrated she can take his principles -- that is, conservative principles -- to Washington, D.C., and not abandon them.
That, of course, is exactly what Republican caucus and primary voters want the next president to do. They want someone they can trust to take their beliefs and values to Washington and stand up to David Gregory and Nancy Pelosi -- as well as to the Republican congressional leadership.
Bachmann is currently fourth in the RealClearPolitics average of national polls -- behind Romney, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. But Perry and Palin have yet to join the race, and perhaps never will. The door is closing fast.
In the RealClearPolitics average of Iowa polls, Romney is at 21.7 percent, just ahead of Bachmann, who is at 19.3 percent. But Bachmann has the momentum -- and was leading Romney in the most recent Iowa poll, 25 percent to 21 percent.
What ought to worry the Obama campaign is that Bachmann, a former Democrat, may have something another former Democrat, Ronald Reagan, had before her: a powerful ability as an outspoken conservative to pull in precisely the type of swing voters who decide modern American presidential elections.
These are culturally conservative Americans -- fed up with the way our economy is going -- who live in the northern Midwest.