In the past, Republicans have moved to the right after a relatively centrist nominee—Goldwater after Nixon in 1960, Reagan after Ford—and many conservatives consider John McCain’s failure to have been because he was insufficiently conservative. I think that’s self-evidently absurd—kind of like Jesse Jackson saying the reason Walter Mondale lost was that he wasn’t liberal enough—but that’s the thinking.
The bottom-line in this first cattle-call in the run up to 2012 is you’ve got to put the odds on potential nominees from the right wing of the party, whether it’s Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, or Sarah Palin (who won’t be attending CPAC). South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford or Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal would make more interesting nominees (yes, even after Jindal’s odd “Kenneth the Page”-esque delivery of the State of the Nation response) but all these folks are social conservatives by matter of degrees. There is no one in the likely Republican field that feels a courageous obligation to question whether the party’s oft-professed belief in individual freedom should extend to gay rights or a woman’s right to choose.