A critically important tug-of-war is under way within the ranks of conservatives. How it's resolved could have an enormous impact on the general election.
It involves two lines of thought on how the Republican Party and Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign should deal with the party's base. Many right-of-center voters are still put off by the nominee-designate's "maverick" opposition to a number of key conservative principles including, among others, immigration, environmental and campaign reforms.
Many activists, within and outside the McCain camp, believe that in the immediate weeks ahead, the campaign should work to solidify the party by courting disillusioned conservatives.
The rival line of thought holds that "pandering" to conservatives would only alienate independents and other non-ideological voters whom McCain seeks to attract.
And some people have considered spiting McCain by casting ballots for Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama.
McCain would be smart to court the conservative base. Here's why: Voting against a candidate isn't the same as voting for a candidate. So what's the difference? Isn't a vote a vote regardless of whether it's cast enthusiastically or unenthusiastically? Not necessarily.
As other pundits have pointed out, if he's voting against a candidate, then that's all he'll do. But if he supports a candidate, he'll do a lot more. He'll donate money to the campaign, work the phone banks, recruit others to join him, and will do all he can to get voters sympathetic to his candidate to the polls on election day.
This is what political activists call the "ground game" -- and it's a lot more important to a candidate's success than polls, TV ads, debates or press conferences. With all the enthusiasm among Democrats this year, you can be sure their ticket will have a terrific ground game. They always do.
If McCain can't match it, then he's going to be in big trouble on Election Day, even if the polls show him ahead. Polls can't measure motivation, and a strong ground game is key to motivating tens of thousands of voters to the polls.
In 2004, Karl Rove surprised Democrats and the media with the hugely successful nationwide ground game that he put together for President Bush's re-election. Without it, John Kerry would be president today.
John McCain will need to replicate those kind of ground forces this fall -- and he's unlikely to find them among moderates or independents. He could find them among the committed, motivated right wing of his party -- be they social, economic, or national security conservatives.
This is why before McCain and the GOP establishment go overboard courting moderates and independents, they should spend some time not only solidifying the party's base, but to generating enthusiasm for his candidacy and recruiting ground forces as well.
Without that, Election Day might turn out to be the kind of nightmare for Republicans that Democrats and much of the mainstream media hope it will be.