TAMPA, Fla. -- Every now and then, an event awakens the ever-slumbering tensions between the Republican Party's two core wings: social conservatives and corporate interests.
A Missouri congressman's comment about rape and pregnancy was one such moment, and it came just as Republicans were hoping for a united front at their convention to nominate Mitt Romney for president.
A full-blown rupture -- such as the one at the 1992 convention, when a defeated candidate declared a national "culture war" -- seems unlikely. But even a modest squabble between key party factions might raise concerns in a tight presidential race.
Romney joined other mainstream Republicans in denouncing the Aug. 19 remarks by Rep. Todd Akin, the party's Senate nominee in Missouri. Akin said rape victims can generally avoid pregnancy because "if it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down."
Romney called Akin's comments "offensive and wrong." He unsuccessfully urged Akin to quit the Senate race.
Like many other top Republicans, Romney stopped short of criticizing Akin's stand on abortion, as opposed to his comments about rape and conception. Akin opposes abortion in all cases, including rape.
Romney would allow abortions in instances of rape and incest. He showed no interest, however, in picking a fight with his party's most ardent abortion opponents, a crucial source of GOP votes and volunteers. And he downplayed the fact that his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, has often joined Akin in anti-abortion measures, including some that sought to differentiate between forcible and non-forcible rapes.
It's hardly surprising that Romney, who's running mainly on economic issues, is trying to maintain a quiet balance between fiscal and social conservatives. The Republican Party cannot win national elections without an alliance between the two groups.
Corporate titans know they must hold hands with anti-abortion crusaders to elect politicians who will keep government regulations and taxes low. Evangelicals and other social conservatives realize they must join ranks with business executives -- even if they would never mingle at a country club -- to elect champions of public prayer, abortion limits and so on.
Romney, who made a fortune heading the private equity firm Bain Capital, comes from the corporate wing. He seems less convincing when talking about the social issues that animate many on the right.
As Massachusetts governor, Romney supported abortion rights, gun control and gay rights. He abandoned those positions as he prepared to run for president in 2008, but many "movement conservatives" remain wary of him.
The visibility and prominence of national-security conservatives have waned in recent years, partly because of widespread disillusionment with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. But business-oriented fiscal conservatives remain vitally important, as do social conservatives, who play big roles in swing states including Iowa, Florida and North Carolina.
"At best, it's a three-legged stool," Dan Schnur, a former Republican adviser who now teaches political science at the University of Southern California, said of the party. "At worst, it's three scorpions in a bottle."