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As I noted on Friday, the GOP could use some unifiers who can fuse the Tea Party’s enthusiasm and small-government devotion with the mature street smarts of conservative stalwarts who possess bipartisan appeal. It is not an easy task. The media envision (and egg on) a competition for the soul of the GOP, and the battle for the 2012 nomination — Sarah Palin vs. everyone else. That sort of standoff may play out, but it’s not a useful paradigm if the Republicans hope to capture the White House.

The midterm results illustrate this vividly. Sarah Palin’s Tea Party favorites Joe Miller, Sharron Angle, and Christine O’Donnell all went down to defeat, as did independent Tom Tancredo, whom she backed in the Colorado gubernatorial race. Her critics cite this as evidence that while potent within the conservative movement, she lacks the appeal and political judgment required for the GOP to win in 2012. Her defenders will remind us that she also backed Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, and Nikki Haley, who all won. The argument for Rubio is not all that persuasive, of course; Rubio didn’t need Palin to win. The concern remains among conservatives: in a presidential race, you need to win not just deep Red States but also ones that are in play in competitive years.

There is another model. If Palin has reinforced doubts about her electability, Haley Barbour has some crowing to do. As head of the hugely successful Republican Governors’ Association, he can claim fundraising prowess and a role in the remarkable sweep in gubernatorial races from Maine to Florida to Wisconsin to New Mexico. The number of e-mails sent out touting his fundraising totals and electoral successes strongly suggests that he is getting his resume in order for a presidential run. But Barbour himself may not be the man to meld the two halves of the party. The image of an older, white Southern male with a successful lobbying career risks alienating the Tea Party contingent, whose enthusiasm and ideological zest led to many of those victories.

Meanwhile, Mitt Romney, who on paper might seem well-suited to the times (businessman, successful governor), is hobbled, maybe fatally, by his authorship of a health-care plan that bears a striking resemblance to the one which both Republican insiders and Tea Party activists are determined to obliterate. This is no small handicap.

So what’s the formula for success? Republicans supported and emerged victorious with serious-minded conservative candidates – Rob Portman in Ohio, Dan Coats in Indiana, and John Boozman in Arkansas – while finding new faces (Rubio, Ron Johnson) who avoided the hot-button rhetoric that derailed a number of the Tea Party candidates. Although ideologically not all that different from the Tea Party–preferred candidates, the GOP victors demonstrated how to meld fiscal conservatism with a more accessible brand of populism. They hardly disappointed the Tea Party crowd; but neither did they alienate independent voters.

Are there GOP hopefuls in 2012 who can fuse Tea Party populism with sober conservative governance? Many in the conservative intelligentsia pine for Gov. Chris Christie, who has become a rock star on YouTube; he won in a Blue State and now is battling against the Trenton insiders. And he’s doing it with showmanship that only Palin can top. But he joked that apparently only “suicide” would convince us that he wasn’t interested. I’m thinking he might be serious about not running.

Then there is Rep. Paul Ryan, soon to take over the chair of the Budget Committee. He excites many conservatives in and outside the Beltway. He’s brainy and articulate, with a shake-up-the-status-quo approach to entitlement and budget reform. He already matched up well against Obama, arguably winning a TKO in the health-care summit. And he will be front and center in the key legislative battles, in some ways the face of the GOP House majority, for the next two years. While he’s said he’s not interested in a 2012 run, he’s not been Christie-esque in his denials. As for the “rule” that House members can’t make viable presidential candidates, I think the rulebook was shredded in the last few years.

Of course, there is Marco Rubio, the party’s genuine superstar (with an immigrant story and deep belief in American exceptionalism), who proved to be an especially effective messenger of conservative principles. However, both he and his most fervent supporters seem to agree: it’s too soon.

So the search goes on. The good news for the GOP is that they have a slew of new governors (e.g., John Kasich) and senators and some retiring ones (Tim Pawlenty, Mitch Daniels) who understand how to forge the center-right coalition needed to get elected. A few faces familiar to political junkies (Mike Pence, John Thune) are also considering a run, which will test whether a Washington insider can nevertheless take on the mantle of reformer/outsider. Can any from this group of Republicans — who frankly lack magnetic personalities — also engage Tea Partiers? We will see.

So conservatives keep looking and trying to persuade the reluctant pols to throw their hats into the ring. Those who imagine they can win back the White House without full engagement of the 2010 winning formula (Tea Partiers plus traditionalists) should think again. A plan by half of the Republican alliance to overpower the other half is a formula for a second Obama term.

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