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Are the Republicans having an identity crisis?

Six-person composite

As a volatile primary race heads to New Hampshire, is the Republican Party's never-ending search for a not-Mitt Romney candidate the sign of a deeper identity crisis? And can they learn anything from Britain's Conservative Party and its long march back to power after a heavy election defeat?

Mitt Romney is the sensible, pragmatic choice. Even his biggest detractors will give the former Massachusetts governor that much.

But his narrow, disputed victory in this week's Iowa caucuses - despite spending millions on TV advertising in the state - demonstrated his apparent inability to inspire broad sections of the party and rise above the 25% level of support.

Fired up by Tea Party rhetoric and huge wins in the 2010 elections - as well as a visceral dislike of what they portray as President Barack Obama's "European-style socialism" - many Republicans appear in no mood to settle for a steady-as-she-goes presidential candidate.

They appear to yearn instead for a transformative figure, who will dramatically reduce the role of government in their lives and shake up the status quo in Washington DC.

Washington Times pollster John Zogby believes the Iowa result confirms that the GOP has "fractured" into three equal-sized factions and that "they are still in an anger and bitterness phase".

Internal divisions?

According to Mr Zogby, the three factions comprise the anti-government, libertarian wing, headed by Ron Paul, the "Christian traditional wing" represented "for now" by Rick Santorum and the more moderate, establishment wing headed by Romney.

Image caption Tony Blair was seen as shallow and glib by his Conservative opponents

Such is the state of Republican disfunction, argues Mr Zogby, that we may even have witnessed the rebirth of a third party in Iowa, headed by Mr Paul, whose strong showing in the caucuses was bolstered by backing from independents and Democrats attracted to his libertarian-leaning platform.

Parties clawing their way back from big general election defeats are often riven by internal divisions and conflict between what the core supporters want - an ideologically pure standard bearer - and what the strategists believe will win them power - a moderate figure with broad appeal.

Some see parallels with Britain's Conservative Party, as they cast around for a leader to take on Tony Blair following Labour's 1997 landslide.

They initially went with electability - figuring that the youthful, energetic William Hague, seen as the best British parliamentary debater of his generation, would prove a match for what they saw as the glib and shallow Mr Blair.

Mr Hague failed to dent Mr Blair's majority in 2001, and handed the choice of the next leader over to the party membership, who went with their heart.

Beatable Obama?

By choosing Iain Duncan Smith - a former Army captain and staunch Eurosceptic - over the more liberal and media-friendly but, to Tory eyes, ideologically suspect Ken Clarke, they had certainly chosen one of their own.

But Duncan Smith proved to be a disaster on television and was swiftly replaced by Michael Howard, in an emergency move aimed at saving the party from electoral wipeout.

The analogy only stretches so far. Tony Blair succeeded by shifting his party to the right and stealing many of the Conservatives' clothes, particularly on economic policy, leaving a demoralised rump of a Tory Party shivering on the sidelines and bickering among each other about what to do next.

The Labour prime minister also had the benefit of a booming economy. Senior Conservatives now admit that whoever had gone up against Blair in 2001 would have lost.

Mr Obama, on the other hand, is seen by most Republicans as eminently beatable, particularly if the fragile US economy takes a turn for the worse between now and November.

'Shallow charlatan'

But Norm Ornstein, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington DC think tank, sees another parallel between today's Republican Party and the Conservatives in the 1990s.

"It is there in the deep frustrations Conservatives had, thinking why couldn't voters see Blair for the shallow charlatan that they knew he was?" he tells BBC News.

Image caption Iain Duncan Smith's joy at being elected Conservative leader was short-lived

But, like the Conservatives, many of whom secretly envied Mr Blair's winning way on a chat-show sofa and his ability to come across as a "regular guy" to swing voters, Republicans wish their candidates had some of Mr Obama's TV-friendly fluency and skill on the campaign trail, argues Mr Ornstein.

He says: "Each time you had a Republican conservative emerge - Bachmann, Cain, Perry, Gingrich - there was the hope that that candidate could embody their conservative values, but also do well in debates against Obama.

"Their weaknesses brought them down. So there is an unease. The disdain that they have for Obama is also accompanied by respect for some of his abilities."

'Cultural differences'

The Conservatives went for electability when they chose their current leader David Cameron, but despite rebranding the party as more socially liberal he failed to deliver the outright general election win he had promised, having to form a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats.

It left many on the Conservative right angrily wondering why they had sacrificed so much for such a small increase in percentage share of the vote.

Those same right-wingers - currently in open revolt against Prime Minister Cameron over Europe - would no doubt advise Republicans to go with their gut feeling every time.

But most Republican commentators argue that they have already done this, in policy terms at least.

The GOP has moved decisively to the right in recent years and there is currently no home for the moderates, or liberals, who once made up a key part of its support base, argues Thomas Mann, a senior fellow at think tank the Brookings Institution.

"I am more struck by what unites the candidates in policy terms and ideologically than what divides them. It is much more visceral and cultural than it is ideological," he tells BBC News.

'Authenticity' questioned

Mr Romney may be described as a moderate by the media, and enjoy the backing of the party's centre-right establishment, he argues, but there is nothing moderate about his tax-cutting, small government policy agenda, which places him well to the right of George Bush Sr and Jr and even the totemic right-wing figure of Ronald Reagan.

Image caption David Cameron shares power with Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg - to the dismay of the Tory right

What is giving conservative Republican voters second thoughts about Mr Romney is the "authenticity of his embrace of their agenda," says Mr Mann.

The former Massachussets governor's healthcare reforms and mixed messages on gay marriage - both touchstone issues for conservative Republicans - has led them to doubt whether he can be trusted, whether he is truly one of them.

But, argues Mr Mann, "the fact is the field is pathetically weak. There is no other plausibly presidential candidate".

The latest polling from New Hampshire suggests Republican voters might be starting to come round to that point of view.

"Before Iowa, the majority of Tea Party supporters were saying we prefer a candidate who shares our views, whether or not that candidate can beat President Obama," says Mr Zogby.

"In this New Hampshire poll, 58% of Tea Party supporters say we want someone who can defeat Obama.

"And Romney is seen by them and by others as the candidate of all of them best positioned to beat Obama."

But even if Mr Romney wins the nomination, he will still face the task of uniting the different factions of the party behind him at general election.

Some commentators suggest he will attempt to deal with the lack of enthusiasm among some Republicans for him personally, by directing his fire even more intensely on President Obama.

"He is likely to turn the ardent hostility that so many Republicans have towards Obama into a motivating force," says Mr Mann.

In other words, it could get nasty.