12/29/2011 09:13 am ET | Updated Dec 29, 2011

Iowa Conservatives' Search For Purist Boosts Non-Purist Romney

DES MOINES, Iowa -- This time, Wade Duncan is going hardcore, which says everything you need to know about the Iowa Republican caucuses. This is a race defined by the search for the Hardcore Candidate -- which, ironically, may lead to a victory by the least hardcore candidate of all, Mitt Romney.

At 40 years old, Duncan looks the hardcore part: clean-shaven head; a linebacker physique; serious, steady gaze.

A libertarian at heart, a self-described small-businessman with three going concerns, Duncan is a student of what he regards as an insidious Federal Reserve. He worries that the Powers That Be are destroying the dollar, and, with it, free markets, free speech and free spirits. He's for the gold standard and halving government spending. He doubts that Social Security will be around for his two-week-old son, Barrett.

Four years ago Duncan voted in the Iowa Republican caucuses for then-Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, a candidate who tried to be all flavors of conservative to all caucus-goers. It worked, and Huckabee won.

But Huckabee faltered shortly thereafter. Now, four years later, Duncan is tired of trying to square the circle of politics, and instead he is voting with his libertarian heart: that is, for Rep. Ron Paul of Texas.

"I can sum up Paul's appeal in one word," Duncan said after listening to him at a State Fairgrounds rally here. "Freedom."

This Iowa GOP caucus campaign has set a weird record: most frontrunners in one year. The list is familiar to political junkies. Since last spring, the leaders of the pack in the polls have been, in order: Mitt Romney, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul. Depending on which poll you read, Romney now is back on top, although barely, with Paul a close second and Rick Santorum closing fast. If the Pennsylvanian keeps moving, he could become the seventh, and perhaps last, frontrunner.

Why such a Macy's parade of inflated and then deflated balloons? And what does this odd, almost ADD-style Iowa caucus campaign say about the state of the Republican Party and the conservative movement?

First, this has proved to be an unusually weak field. Pundits declare as much every four years, only this time it is really true. "We've been dealing with a bunch of clowns," a Romney Iowa adviser told me here happily, if privately. No sooner did one come forward into the spotlight, then his or her flaws became manifest.

Romney, the constant star in this shifting firmament, has done a good job of attacking anyone who makes a move. He did it to Perry, whose major debate disaster was not his forgetfulness but his "soft" stance on immigration, a stance anathema to the Tea Party and many other conservatives. Romney jumped mercilessly on this apostasy by racing to the right on the issue so he had a clear line of attack.

Then, when Gingrich rocketed to the top, catching the Romney campaign flatfooted, the former Massachusetts governor's allies responded with a carpet-bombing of attack ads, from Sioux City to Dubuque -- perhaps $4 million worth. Newt didn't know what hit him, and when he figured it out, it was too late.

Voters here are as angry and upset as voters elsewhere, but like those elsewhere, they aren't sure about where to turn. "They feel a sense of urgency, but they don't really seem to be invested deeply," said Tim Albrecht, the communications director for Gov. Terry Branstad. "It's a lot of anxiety that isn't attached to anything."

The dismal performance of Congress and disappointment with President Obama have left voters skeptical about all politicians and the political process itself, making them harder than ever to please.

At the same time, an all-encompassing conservative movement, which once gave the GOP cohesion and purpose, has decayed into its constituent pieces. And rather than play to the party as a whole, each candidate is playing to his or her own market segment in an effort to garner just enough support to survive.

Those who have tried to move outside of their niches have failed, time and again. The run-up to the caucuses became not so much a campaign as the Iowa Inquisition, with each camp looking for its purist candidate.

So Duncan, like other anti-government libertarians, gave his heart to Paul. The party establishment types, loosed from any reigning conservative orthodoxy and intent primarily on brute survival, stuck with Romney, who campaigned hard here four years ago and who has carefully tended his ties here.

Perry made a bid for the rootin' tootin' neocon hawk crowd, the inheritors of what used to be the anti-communist agenda, but he fell short because, among other things, of his lack of knowledge of the issues.

The last race-within-a-race is for the allegiance of the "Values Voters." After three marriages and assorted family fissures, Newt couldn't cut it in the role. Bachmann bet all her money and organization on the straw poll last summer, but it turned out to be a Potemkin village of cobbled together support. Now Perry and Santorum are working the same crowd.

"This is a race of niches and notches," said Gabrielle Forsyth, a Republican operative in town for the caucuses. "No one seems able to move beyond them."

Which is good news for the one niche-less candidate: Mitt Romney. No one would mistake him for a purist, so he isn't going to disappoint anyone who is.