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Obama in 2012: Who can challenge him?

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But the Republican Party today has no clear structure and no established leaders with the influence to control its direction. There are traditional Republicans who stand for lower taxes, a strong national defense, and what they like to call “American values.” But there is the significant influence of religious fundamentalists who are generally hostile to such things as abortion rights and gay marriage.

And most important this time around, there is the Tea Party. Many Republicans believe the election of 2010 has given them a mandate—a moral calling in their eyes—to have their way on everything from the federal deficit to the price of gasoline.

Except for a few minor players willing to buy the whole package of extremes, Republican candidates are being bent out of shape trying to reconcile the Tea Party with the independents they know are essential to winning an election.

Mitt Romney is the putative frontrunner, largely because he was the last man standing against John McCain in the 2008 contest. But his standing in opinion polls is puny, and he has been targeted by Sarah Palin. His sin, as Palin explains it, is that his promulgation of a state health-care plan as governor of Massachusetts shows he is willing to “grow government,” a mortal sin to the Tea Party Republicans.

In dealing with this issue, Romney has not exactly shown himself to be a sure-footed candidate. He has been awkward and defensive trying to reconcile criticism of Obama’s health-care program with his own history.

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