Nearly all the media focus is on where the GOP presidential candidates stand in the polls and who will have a stronger standing after Iowa, and New Hampshire and North Carolina. I’m interested in what they’re standing on.

How will the Republicans choose their presidential candidate? Or as WaPo put it…

…one question could shape the destiny of the eventual winner: Will the nominee define the party, or will the party define the nominee?

Successful presidential nominees often have helped redefine their parties. Ronald Reagan’s conservatism changed the Republican Party when he became the GOP nominee in 1980. Bill Clinton portrayed himself as a New Democrat, which proved a key to his victory in 1992. In his 2000 campaign, George W. Bush used the term “compassionate conservative” to put distance between himself and the congressional wing of his party that had been defined by Newt Gingrich.

In this campaign, the opposite seems to be the case. “This year, it seems to me, the party is the sun and the candidates are the planets. .?.?. They are trying to prove to primary voters that they are reliable and trustworthy when it comes to the basic platform of the GOP,” said Pete Wehner, a Republican strategist and former Bush administration adviser.

Republicans have a real opportunity to unseat an incumbent president in November, given the state of the economy and public dissatisfaction with some of the president’s policies. President Obama’s standing is as fragile as that of any incumbent seeking reelection in two decades.

But Republicans could see their opening slip away if the nominee is bound too tightly to an unpopular congressional wing of the party that has become the face of the GOP over the past 12 months.

(What WaPo doesn’t note here is how unpopular all of Congress is right now.)

One reason the candidates have been reluctant to chart new philosophical ground is that Republicans are as ideologically united as they’ve been in many years. They are also more conservative than they were even in Reagan’s day, thanks to an infusion of energy and ideas from the tea party movement.

That has put a strong gravitational pull on the presidential candidates.

This is interesting, and more revealing than most press the race is getting. What’s the center of gravity that holds such force? The article says it’s party orthodoxy. Specifically, tea party fervor.

Democrats see the Republican candidates as compliant to the tea party wing of the GOP. “This is a party that is very much defined by the tea party element, and the candidates have submitted to that,” said Democratic pollster Geoff Garin. “That’s their destiny, and they’re going to have to live with it.”

A Republican strategist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to talk candidly about the election, agreed. “What Obama needs to do now is force the Republican nominee into supporting the tea party wing of the party over the next nine months,” he said. “Can you tie the nominee to the congressional Republicans? If he can do that, now you’re talking about a real problem.”

What you’re talking about as a problem or a strategy depends on who you’re talking to, because the GOP hasn’t ever been this fractured at the beginning of their primaries. And the only thing the best pundits seem to agree on is that predictions are only educated guesses at best. Anything is possible, and the uncommitted voters are still trying to make up their minds.

I attended a reception over New Year’s weekend and my particular roundtable of ten guests was well-informed and animated in discussing this presidential race. They were all concerned over the confusion and lack of clear vision forward, and general lack of leadership in the country. They seemed to represent everyone at this point. Questions tossed back and forth covered social issues, the economy, foreign policy, jobs, religious liberty, fundamental morals.

Who best represents mainstream America? Why does Ron Paul consistently run such a strong race? That question has to be taken seriously by the eventual Republican candidate. Why did Rick Santorum surge just ahead of the Iowa caucuses? And who is really determining that party’s identity?

Everytime I hear about the ‘values voters’ I wonder if analysts are missing the obvious. Everyone is a ‘values’ voter. It just depends on whose values you believe in, and which ones will prevail. That’s what matters in Iowa, and every state that follows in the primaries.

The campaigns began last year. Now, the race begins.

Sheila Liaugminas

Sheila Liaugminas is an Emmy award-winning Chicago-based journalist in print and broadcast media. Her writing and broadcasting covers matters of faith, culture, politics and the media....