Early next year, when Republican voters begin to select their 2016 presidential nominee, they will not just be choosing one individual from among a large field of candidates. They will also be choosing among competing theories about what the party needs to do to win the White House.
One choice pits what Donald Trump represents - the appeal of a strong personality - against what House Speaker Paul D. Ryan spoke about in the past week: the power of a conservative agenda. The other choice highlights strikingly different models for winning primaries and general elections, embodied in the campaigns of Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida.
On Thursday, Ryan delivered his first major speech since taking over the top leadership in the House. He used it to sketch out his ambitions for his first year as speaker. His aims include helping to deliver a Republican victory in the presidential race. He pledged to use his House majority over the next year to set forth, as he put it, a conservative policy agenda that would provide "a complete alternative to the left's agenda."
The program, which he sketched only in the broadest of strokes, includes comprehensive tax reform, stripping away federal regulations, restructuring safety-net programs, repealing the Affordable Care Act and rebuilding U.S. military forces. It is an agenda for smaller central government at home and a more robust presence abroad.
"If we want to save the country, then we need a mandate from the people," he said. "And if we want a mandate, then we need to offer ideas. And if we want to offer ideas, then we need to actually have ideas."
Ryan conceded that President Obama would probably veto much of the conservative legislation that Congress might pass. But his larger aim, he said, would be to provide a substantive policy foundation that would be embraced by the party's eventual nominee in 2016.
Though he decided not to enter the 2016 race as a candidate, Ryan clearly hopes to play a central role in shaping his party's direction. His recommendations, substantively and politically, will resonate among the party elite.
Trump's candidacy is the antithesis of Ryan's approach - anti-elite in almost all respects. He has put forth some policy proposals, but that's hardly the basis of his appeal. His ideas lack ideological consistency. He does not offer a conservative alternative to the left. Instead, he offers an alternative to what many angry conservatives regard as weak leadership, whether from the president or their own party leaders.
Trump has tapped into the frustrations of people at a gut level. Right now, that's been driving the GOP contest far more than policy ideas. As Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said when he quit the Republican race last month: "We spent a lot of time developing detailed policy papers. Given this crazy, unpredictable election season, clearly there wasn't an interest in those policy papers."
In Trump, people are responding to a candidate who projects strength and who gives voice, often using the crudest of rhetoric, to grievances about the way the country is changing, symbolized by the issue of immigration. His supporters appear not to be looking for ideological purity, an optimistic vision or a well-packaged policy agenda.
Trump sits on one side of a major cleavage within the party, one that is based not on ideology but rather on levels of education. According to a new national CNN/ORC poll, among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents without college degrees, Trump laps the field, with 46 percent support to 12 percent for Cruz, 11 percent for retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and 8 percent for Rubio. Among those with college degrees, Trump is fourth, though tightly bunched with Cruz, Rubio and Carson.
The CNN national poll underscores the grip Trump has on a significant portion of the Republican electorate. At 36 percent, he leads his nearest rival by 20 points. More important may be the current perceptions of his leadership on the issues.
More than half the GOP electorate sees him as best able to handle the economy, an issue on which his nearest competitor is 46 points lower. His lead on handling the federal budget is 41 points. On immigration, he has a 34-point lead over his closest competitor. He has a 31-point advantage on dealing with the Islamic State (though only a 13-point advantage on foreign policy generally). Half the GOP electorate sees him as having the best chance of winning the general election in 2016.
In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in Paris, some people thought that support for Trump, who has no experience in national security issues, would begin to sag. It did not. The CNN poll was completed before the shootings in San Bernardino that left 14 dead and 21 wounded. In the aftermath of the carnage there, which is being investigated as possible terrorism, Trump's broadsides could find more support.
So that's one competition, ideas and agenda vs. personality and images of strength. In the other, Cruz and Rubio represent conflicting interpretations of the changing face of America and how candidates maneuver through a polarized electorate. Do voters want a unifying figure, or is the coming general election a tribal clash in which pure motivation and mobilization are more important than persuasion and reconciliation?
Rubio is a candidate of hope and optimism. He salts his stump speech with talk of American renewal and economic resurgence. The subtext of his optimistic message is that he can best unite the entire Republican Party. He is seeking to bridge the divisions between the GOP establishment and a powerfully disaffected grass roots.
He and his advisers accept the demographic changes as inexorable, shifts that require Republicans to expand their support among the growing nonwhite portion of the electorate. He offers himself as the candidate who not only would provide a generational contrast to Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton, but also would be seen by voters as a more likable and less polarizing leader than Clinton.
Cruz's message is more apocalyptic, appealing to what he sees as a disaffected conservative base and seizing on the realities of a polarized nation. From their Houston headquarters, he and his team see a Republican Party in which the balance of power has been shifting from the establishment to a more disaffected core of conservative voters.
They believe that the financial bailout votes in 2008 marked a line of demarcation within the party and that a tipping point has been reached that has caused the grass roots to rise up against Washington, Wall Street and those politicians who do their bidding. The campaign seeks to consolidate the right - tea party, evangelical and libertarian. Cruz wants not so much to find a way to straddle the party's divisions but to crush the establishment.
Looking to the general election, he and his advisers argue that demographic changes have not realigned the electorate decisively in favor of the Democrats. They also believe that after the presidencies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, both of whom ran on the theme of bringing the country together and failed to do so, voters are skeptical of candidates who make a similar appeal.
They see Clinton and her rival Sen. Bernie Sanders tacking left because, they say, both leading Democratic candidates recognize the need to do the maximum possible to keep the progressive base active and energized. They believe the same is required for Republicans to turn out conservatives who sat out the past two elections.
The nominating contest ultimately will resolve these conceptual conflicts and in doing so reveal more than we know now about the Republican Party and its future. The first real clues will begin to arrive in less than 60 days.