SILVER SPRING, Md. — Five different political contests are being conducted right now. Only two are evident to the naked eye.
The first of the visible contests pits Mitt Romney against Rick Santorum for the Republican presidential nomination. The results here in Maryland and in Wisconsin this week tell us who has a commanding lead there.
The second visible contest pits Romney against President Barack Obama. That one began this month with their twin addresses to the convention of editors in Washington. Obama has a 4-point lead, according to a Gallup poll conducted last week for USA Today.
Now to the three contests below the surface.
One is being mounted by Romney to wrest control of GOP convention delegates most people assumed were the property of Santorum and Newt Gingrich. This is a subterranean game Romney likely will eventually win, quietly, slowly — but decisively.
The second contest barely beneath the surface is over the character of the GOP. It is part of the eternal struggle between populists and plutocrats.
Don't think of this as a proxy for Romney vs. Santorum no matter how many times the former senator goes bowling. This class struggle began before they arrived on the scene and will continue after their departure. It is the mirror of the struggle among Democrats between the circle around Franklin Roosevelt, rooted in the faculty offices of Harvard, and the Southern Democrats, rooted in county courthouses and in the kennels of the yellow dogs.
The final contest is over the nature of conservatism. It may look like the struggle for control of the GOP, but it's larger than that. Conservatism is a movement; the Republicans are a party. For many years they lived separate lives and may do so again. The struggle over the character of the party is fundamentally being conducted in the heart, the struggle over the nature of conservatism in the head.