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Because of Republicans, Obama has head start

It isn't every day that political candidates get asked whether the 10th Amendment allows states to nullify federal laws, but that was precisely the question Rick Santorum faced at a forum here a few days ago organized by a libertarian-leaning group.

To his credit, Santorum did not pander to the nullifier. He offered a sophisticated response arguing that the Civil War had transformed the country's conception of itself to that of a nation rather than a collection of states. "We had a Civil War about nullification," Santorum said with a smile. "I'm not sure I want to go there."

Santorum's experience raises a larger question about this year's Republican primary contest: Rather than strengthening the party for the coming battle against President Obama, will it instead leave it more marginalized from the views of swing voters by requiring candidates to spend so much time and energy wooing voters far to the right of the mainstream?

Most Republicans do not share the views of the nullifier at the Santorum event, of course, but anyone who has spent time at Republican events here and in Iowa over the last several weeks quickly understands that GOP primary voters hold assumptions that are not shared by middle-of-the-road voters likely to decide the election.

The dislike of the president is so visceral that no rhetorical salvo against him is too ferocious. "Repeal Obamacare" is the surest applause line in the Republican arsenal. There is no need to discuss the health care issue in any detail or offer alternatives to the Affordable Care Act. Tax increases can never be discussed. Virtually any proposal to cut government (except, among some Republicans, defense spending) wins cheers. The habits Republicans are developing now will not serve them well this fall.

Primary fights can divide and dispirit a political party, an experience Democrats had over and over from the late 1960s into the early 1980s. But they can also mobilize and energize a party. This happened to some degree during the battle between George W. Bush and John McCain in 2000, and even more so during the Democrats' epic 2008 contest between Obama and Hillary Clinton. That confrontation brought tens of thousands of new voters into the Democratic primaries and required Obama to organize early in states such as North Carolina, Virginia and Indiana. All went his way in November.

This Republican primary contest does not fall neatly into either of these categories, but its impact has been more negative than positive for the GOP. Most of the news from the Republican race before the voting started was negative, focusing on the shortcomings of the various contenders: Newt Gingrich's jewelry-buying habits, Rick Perry's debate meltdowns, Herman Cain's personal troubles. This was happening as the party's image had already been dented by the unpopularity of the GOP in Congress.

The ideological fervor in the party might have overcome the frailties of its candidates and mobilized the faithful anyway. But so far, this hasn't happened. The crowds at candidate events have been far from exceptional, and at least in the Iowa caucuses, turnout almost certainly would have been down from 2008 but for the independents and young people brought into the caucuses by Ron Paul. Many of these libertarians and peace activists will not naturally fit into the GOP, and can't be counted on to support the party's nominee.

There are plusses for the Republicans. Mitt Romney is nothing if not disciplined, and many of his criticisms of Obama over the economy could also be persuasive to moderates and independents. Santorum has reminded Republicans of the many working-class whites who have given the party victories in the past. The GOP would be foolish to ignore some of the lessons he is teaching.

But while Obama has been able to make general election arguments -- on behalf of the battered middle class, in favor of popular tax increases on the wealthy, and against Republican obstruction of his efforts to protect consumers against abuses by the financial industry -- the candidates who hope to oppose him have been required to live in a very different world.

They have not had an exciting enough contest to bring outsiders into the fold, and have not been encouraged to hone arguments that have wide appeal. There will be plenty of time for that, of course. But for now, Republicans have ceded Obama a head start -- and at a moment when the economic news is looking up.

Email E.J. Dionne at ejdionnewashpost.com.