SILVER SPRING, Md. -- Five different political contests are being conducted right now. Only two are evident to the naked eye.
The first of the visible contests pits Mitt Romney against Rick Santorum for the Republican presidential nomination. The results here in Maryland and in Wisconsin last week tell us who has a commanding lead there.
The second visible contest pits Romney against President Barack Obama. That one began this month with their twin addresses to the convention of editors in Washington. Obama has a 4-point lead, according to a Gallup poll conducted last week for USA Today.
Now to the three contests below the surface.
One is being mounted by Romney to wrest control of convention delegates most people assumed were the property of Santorum and Newt Gingrich. This is a subterranean game Romney likely will eventually win, quietly, slowly -- but decisively.
The second contest barely beneath the surface is over the character of the GOP. It is part of the eternal struggle between populists and plutocrats. Don't think of this as a proxy for Romney vs. Santorum no matter how many times the former senator goes bowling. This class struggle began before they arrived on the scene and will continue after their departure. It is the mirror of the struggle among Democrats between the circle around Franklin Roosevelt, rooted in the faculty offices of Harvard, and the Southern Democrats, rooted in county courthouses and in the kennels of the yellow dogs.
The final contest is over the nature of conservatism. It may look like the struggle for control of the GOP, but it's larger than that. Conservatism is a movement; the Republicans are a party. For many years they lived separate lives and may do so again. The struggle over the character of the party is fundamentally being conducted in the heart, the struggle over the nature of conservatism in the head.
The week that the founding father of modern conservatism, Barry Goldwater, won the 1964 Republican presidential nomination, political scientist Andrew Hacker assessed the new movement -- planted in the same soil that created John Kennedy's New Frontier and Lyndon Johnson's Great Society -- this way: "The new conservatism is the result of the democratic process itself: the widening of new opportunities for millions of Americans who have risen to a better location in life and who at all costs want to ensure that they remain there."
That description now looks antiquarian. Modern Conservatism 2.0 -- created in a world where Goldwater is a memory for all but a few, where his protege Ronald Reagan is a symbol but not an intimate presence, and where vast swaths of working Americans have a conservative impulse -- has an economic component and a social component. It is chary of government involvement in the economy but open to government restrictions in social and cultural life.
How wealthy a country this must be to afford, or to tolerate, five vital contests at once! But this is a time of economic privation and of political riches; not since the 1930s, when the economy was ailing and the Democrats were remaking themselves, did America have so many parallel contests. And during that period -- indeed for much of the era between 1916 and 1960 -- the Republicans snoozed, putting up worthy candidates with formidable records (Charles Evans Hughes, Herbert Hoover, Thomas Dewey) but who did not stir the drink, nor roil the waters.
Today, passions among Republicans run high -- itself a great departure from the norm for almost a majority of Americans, who recall the GOP as a sleepy outpost of politicians who defined themselves by what they were against (the New Deal, mostly but not always fervently) and what they wanted to promote (prudence and thrift, mostly). When the Republicans of yore held a shootout, it was over the identity of their nominee, not over the ideology of their party. This was true even in the principal ideological struggle of the era, in 1952 between Sen. Robert A. Taft of Ohio and Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower. Eisenhower, without any discernible ideology, prevailed.
Now the party is packed with passion, but not necessarily primed for resolution. Indeed, the emergence of Romney probably postpones the resolution of much of the Republican dispute.
He personifies the managerial wing of the Republican Party, the strain that included Hoover, 1940 nominee Wendell Willkie, to some extent Dewey and certainly both Presidents Bush. But he is at best a convert to movement conservatism and, to some in that movement, a sheep in sheep's clothing.
Indeed, to conservatives he is reminiscent of Averell Harriman's 1967 assessment of Maxwell Taylor: "He is a very handsome man, and a very impressive one," Harriman said, "and he is always wrong." Probably unfair to both men, but there are no points for fairness in war or politics.
While the 2012 primaries and caucuses likely postponed the resolution of the battle over the character of the GOP, they intensified the conflict over the nature of conservatism, one that Reagan kept under the lid of the boiling pot but which began to spill over in 1988, scalding conservatives to this day. Santorum is one of the first Republican politicians to electrify both economic and social conservatives, but his hopes in the visible part of this campaign are dwindling.
Santorum may in fact be conducting his last stand in his home state, which ordinarily would be an advantage but in this peculiar year may be peculiarly unfortunate for the onetime Pennsylvania senator, who was soundly defeated in his re-election battle six years ago.
Santorum forces continually point to May for their breakout -- the terrain there favors him and the issues will be in his wheelhouse -- but his campaign may not endure that long, in part because of Romney's diligence in one of the invisible contests, the process of peeling away delegates that look as if they are in the Santorum and Gingrich columns but in reality are not settled anywhere.
There is a tropism to politics, and it favors the front-runner. Watch how Romney, who lost the Iowa caucuses in January by a handful of votes, will look like the triumphant conquerer of Iowa in August. The subterranean contests count. Some of them last decades. Some of them choose nominees.