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Saturday, December 10, 2016

You’ve got to stay alert these days if you want to keep up with the Republican Party. Actually, make that Republican parties.

The GOP is proceeding along two tracks — the headline track and the governing track. Which party will show up Aug. 6 for the first presidential debate? Or will both of them be onstage?

The headline track is driven largely by Donald Trump and the 2016 contestants trying to escape his shadow. It’s not pretty but from their standpoint it is necessary. They can’t afford to be subtle when there are 17 candidates (the tally as of Wednesday, when former Virginia governor Jim Gilmore filed his paperwork) and Fox News has decreed the first debate will be limited to the top 10 in national polls.

There’s also a Capitol Hill contingent on the headline track, and it’s more than just senators who are running for president. In fact, I was so riveted by a House conservative’s surprise attempt to oust Speaker John Boehner from his job that I nearly missed Trump calling former Alaska governor Sarah Palin “really a special person” — a ” tough and smart” special person — who might well turn up in his administration.

“Everybody loves her,” Trump said on Mama Grizzly Radio (“Sarah Palin news 24-7”). Well, maybe not everybody, he amended. “Like me, she’s got people that don’t exactly love us and we understand who they are and sort of forget about that.” To be precise, 58 percent of Americans don’t “exactly love” either of them. That was Palin’s unfavorable rating in a 2013 CNN poll and Trump’s in a CNN poll last week.

Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee has also been riveting lately, starting with his claim that President Obama, via his nuclear deal with Iran, “will take the Israelis and basically march them to the door of the oven.” Ditto Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who said at a recent rally that “without exaggeration, the Obama administration will become the world’s leading state sponsor and financier of radical Islamic terrorism” as a result of the Iran deal.

Obama, asked about Huckabee’s comments at a news conference in Ethiopia, accused both Huckabee and Cruz of trying to steal headlines from Trump. To which Trump retorted, on Breitbart News, “He’s over in Africa and he’s talking about Trump. I think it sends a very weak and a very bad signal to the people he’s trying to impress.”

All of this came after videos in which Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul set the tax code on fire and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham tried to destroy his cellphone with a bat, a golf club and a blender after Trump gave out his number live on TV. Which was after Graham called him a jackass. Which was after Trump said Arizona Sen. John McCain — Graham’s close friend — was not a war hero. After which former Texas governor Rick Perry called Trump “a cancer on conservatism.”

The theatrics disguise the real divide in the GOP. That’s the one between people aiming for a functional system and other people who give no quarter on their ideology, despite the realities of operating under divided government in a divided nation. The motion to oust Boehner, filed by Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC) is the latest reflection of tensions between mainstream, business-oriented Republicans and the populist Tea Party wing of the GOP.

Cruz, who embodies the latter brand, reinforced his bona fides recently by calling Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell a liar. He also tried (but failed) to kill Obamacare, the Iran deal, and funding for Planned Parenthood in amendments to a highway bill. Some of this was going on the same day Ohio governor John Kasich said on NBC’s Meet the Press that U.S. troops should be “on the ground fighting” the Islamic State in the Middle East, and he would send them. That is a key fact to know about the 16th GOP candidate to enter the presidential race, but it barely registered amid the din.

Some in the Republican gaggle are displaying the “sense of seriousness and decorum and honesty” that Obama says he would like to see in his successor. They are proposing policy initiatives, reaching out to minorities and discussing their stands on major issues. At least one, former Florida governor Jeb Bush, confessed to a Carson City, Nevada, audience that he would not reverse an Iran nuclear deal on day one — before he has consulted with allies, named a secretary of state or received intelligence briefings. “I think it’s important to be mature and thoughtful about this,” he said.

Mature and thoughtful are not the words that come to mind as the first GOP debate nears. Wild, crazy, and off-the-charts are some that do. The candidates have delicate choices to make. Should they engage Trump or ignore him? Compete with him or contrast themselves with him? Their decisions will define the nomination race and could reshape it.

Follow Jill Lawrence on Twitter @JillDLawrence. To find out more about Jill Lawrence and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

Image: DonkeyHotey via Flickr