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Many top Republicans are growing worried that the party’s chances for reversing its electoral routs of 2006 and 2008 are being wounded by the flamboyant rhetoric and angry tone of conservative activists and media personalities, according to interviews with GOP officials and operatives.
Congressional leaders talk in private of being boxed in by commentators such as Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh — figures who are wildly popular with the conservative base but wildly controversial among other parts of the electorate, and who have proven records of making life miserable for senators and House members critical of their views or influence.
Some of the leading 2012 candidates are described by operatives as grappling with the same tension. The challenge is to tap into the richest source of energy in the party — the disgust of grass-roots conservative activists with President Barack Obama and their hunger for a full-throated attack on his agenda — without coming off to the broader public as cranky and extreme.
Mitt Romney has purposely kept a lower profile and stuck to speeches on specific policy issues, in part to avoid the early trade-off between placating party activists and appearing presidential. Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, one of the most active potential opponents for Obama in 2012, said that media portrayals of a narrow-minded party could make it harder to attract the middle-of-the-road voters needed to make the GOP a majority party again.