The Grand Old Party leans right, and Americans shudder

In a year that Republicans feel they can win the White House their base has moved so far to the right that they may end up choosing a candidate that is un-electable.

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In the past few weeks, the Republican presidential primary contest has become more confusing and, for some in the GOP, disheartening. For months now, the rather lackluster field of 10 or so announced Republican candidates has been raising money, hiring staff and campaigning vigorously in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina - sites of some of the earliest contests in the 2012 presidential nominating contest.

I say lackluster because polls are showing that less than one-quarter of Republicans are actually satisfied with this collection of candidates. As a result, not a week goes by without some other name being floated as a potential "saviour" who it is hoped will rescue the party, leading it to victory.

Almost since the race began, the frontrunner has been former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. But in all this time he has never garnered the support of more than 25 per cent of potential Republican voters. Mr Romney has support, but not passionate support, since the main argument in his favour was that he appeared to be more electable than his opponents.

Many Republicans, however, remain uncomfortable with his candidacy since he was, after all, a fairly moderate Governor who pursued, by today's Republican standards, a liberal economic and social agenda. Mr Romney's conversion to conservatism was late, during the 2008 presidential contest when he began rejecting many of the programmes and policies he had embraced as governor.

Back in 2008 it was hard to know what was more unbelievable - that Mr Romney was really a conservative, or that conservatives actually believed that he was really a conservative. In any case, so slim was his lead and so thin his support that within recent weeks he has come to lose that lead or share it with others in the race.

The first to challenge Mr Romney's front-runner status was Michele Bachmann, a three-term congresswoman from Minnesota. Mrs Bachmann, a self-anointed leader of the Tea Party, has distinguished herself as a bit of a rabble rouser. Her rather dogmatic religious fundamentalism and her penchant for exaggeration and harsh rhetoric have won her support among the party's base, while at the same time causing concern among the GOP's establishment.

At this point, the only other candidates worth mentioning are Rep Ron Paul, a Libertarian, whose esoteric economics and rigid isolationism have won him a devoted following, and successful African American businessman Herman Cain, whose humour and hard-nosed attacks on President Obama have livened up the debates.

As entertaining as they both have been, however, neither will play more than supporting roles in this year's contest. The rest of the field, which includes three former governors, a former House speaker and a former senator, have failed to gain much traction.

Two weeks ago, Iowa held its first televised debate and its traditional "straw poll". While this is understood to be an unscientific measure, nevertheless it is viewed by the press and public as a show of strength and the first test of the candidates' ability to organise supporters.

The outcome of this year's contest revealed how far to the extreme right Republican voters had drifted, with Mrs Bachmann narrowly defeating Mr Paul.

Mrs Bachmann sought to capitalise on her victory with a round of national television appearances (Mr Paul, on the other hand, was virtually ignored by the mainstream media). Her efforts, however, were overshadowed by Texas Governor Rick Perry's entry into the race. Demonstrating how volatile this contest is and how thin the support for the frontrunners, within one day the governor had rocketed to first place in the polls.

Mr Perry, known as a brash and out-spoken candidate whose style is reminiscent of George W Bush(though more authentically Texan), quickly endeared himself to the far right while causing new headaches for the Republican establishment. On his second day in the race he called the head of the Federal Reserve (a George W Bush appointee) treasonous and questioned whether President Barack Obama had the respect of the US military.

Most of the more mainstream GOP figures have announced that they will not run (governors and former governors like Mississippi's Haley Barbour, Indiana's Mitch Daniels, New Jersey's Chris Christie and Florida's Jeb Bush).

To date, the only characters still flirting with entering the race (Sarah Palin and Rudy Giuliani and former New York Governor George Pataki) appear to have little more to offer than an ego waiting to be fed.

An indication of how difficult this situation has become for the GOP was the subject of some sharp comments this week by the former Utah governor John Huntsman, one of the more moderate candidates in the race. Mr Huntsman, in an effort to boost his candidacy and distinguish himself from the rest of the field, decried the extremism of his opponents, as well as their lack of realism and their anti-science views.

In response, one Republican pollster noted that while what Huntsman said "was mainstream America", it was "not mainstream Republican. And this, after all, is a Republican primary".

And therein lies the GOP's dilemma: in a year they desperately want to win and feel they can, their base has moved so far to the right that they may end up choosing a candidate whose views do not reflect America's mainstream, and who is therefore un-electable.

James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute