The Democratic contest got rough at times, but the candidates largely avoided the sort of personal attacks — Romney as a vulture capitalist, Gingrich as ethically unfit, Santorum as a hypocrite — that Republicans have burned into voters' minds with millions of dollars in negative TV ads. In 2008, Schmidt noted, "the primary tension among Democrats was over which of two historic candidates they would choose. They liked both of them.... As this race goes on, Republicans increasingly say, 'We don't like any of them. We want someone else in the race.' "
Independent voters have been especially turned off. For a time, Romney enjoyed a double-digit lead over the president among those unaligned voters, who will be crucial to winning in the fall. But more recent surveys have shown Obama pulling ahead.
Independents are by their very nature less ideological and care far more about jobs and the economy than godliness and debates over morality, subjects that Romney cannot avoid when Santorum thrusts them into the campaign. More than once, the GOP front-runner has highlighted positions — such as opposition to Title X, a federal program that funds contraception and preventive care for poor women — that may fend off his primary opponents but probably wouldn't help him in November.
However, GOP strategist Charlie Black, among others, insists that everything will change once the party has a nominee to rally behind and the focus turns to the fight against Obama. The timing, he said, is immaterial.
"I've done it both ways," said Black, who has spent decades working in Republican presidential campaigns. "There's not any correlation between clinching the nomination early and winning in November."
Even so, plenty of nervous Republicans would like the scuffling to end sooner rather than later.
"Any day we aren't out there talking about economic growth and getting the country moving is not a good day," said Fred Malek, a Romney backer and another veteran GOP strategist. "The closer we get to that day, the better."