ANN ARBOR, Michigan — As he watched last week's Republican debate from his apartment in University of Michigan's married student housing, Derek Osborne could hardly contain his disgust every time Rick Santorum came on TV.
"He represents a part of the Republican party that drives me absolutely crazy," he seethed.
Osborne, a Ph.D candidate, is a Mitt Romney supporter. He's also a moderate Republican who is alarmed at what he sees as the anti-intellectual fervor—and undeniable political power—of the Tea Party movement. As the latest candidate to emerge as the main populist rival to Romney, Santorum has become the primary political enemy of Osborne and millions of voters like him.
Indeed, more than anywhere else in this political moment, Romney's campaign stops have served as the stage for a rising counter-revolution against the Tea Party—with moderate Republicans uniting behind the candidate whose nomination, they hope, will damp down the fires that have raged on the right since 2009. It's the latest turn in an intramural war that has been waged since Barry Goldwater beat a handful of Establishment Republicans — including Michigan Governor George Romney — in the 1964 Republican primary.
"I will not vote for him if he's the nominee," Osborne pledged, as Santorum's face filled the television set in his living room. "For him there's one right answer that is given by God that you have to obey. You're not allowed to talk about negotiating or compromising. It's insane."
It's a sentiment that was echoed repeatedly by the crowds of supporters at Romney's recent campaign swing through Michigan.
Mark Mailloux, a Romney rally-goer from Fenton, MI who works in the health care field, called Santorum the latest star in a rotating cast of "conservative nutjobs... First it was Bachmann, then whats-his-face from Texas, and right on down the road."
His wife Joan agreed: "I don't want a nominee clear over by the Tea Party. I want a moderate, responsible Republican. Santorum tells us on television that he's got these big economic plans and then he doesn't tell us a darn thing about them," she said, complaining that he spends too much time attacking his opponents and sermonizing on social issues.
In Kalamazoo, MI, student Gus Thatcher voiced exasperation at conservatives' stubborn insistence on mobilizing behind a new standard-bearer every time Romney has defeated one of their candidates. He was particularly irked by Santorum's sudden re-emergence.
"It just sort of happened out of nowhere, and they can't even explain why they like him [more than Gingrich]," he said, adding that Santorum is "too extreme to beat Obama."
Though he has made occasional half-hearted appeals to the Tea Party, Romney himself has appeared to embrace his role as the party's moderate answer to right-wing populism. During a visit to Michigan's campaign headquarters on Tuesday, he let loose on his more conservative opponents.
“It’s very easy to excite the base with incendiary comments,” he told reporters. “We’ve seen throughout the campaign that if you’re willing to say really outrageous things that are accusatory and attacking President Obama that you’re going to jump up in the polls. You know, I’m not willing to light my hair on fire to try and get support. I am who I am.”
This type of rhetoric is exactly what has earned him so many supporters in the GOP's waning moderate wing. But as the race has worn on, many of those same voters have grown restless with Romney's inability to seal the deal—and some wish he'd set his hair on fire to defeat Santorum.
"Why hasn't Mitt taken him out yet?" asked a frustrated Eric Zeugschmidt, a communications executive from Provo, Utah.
His advice to Romney?
"Take the kid gloves off and start knocking some heads... This Mr. Nice Guy who is taking the higher road is not working."
McKay Coppins is a senior writer for the BuzzFeed News politics team, and the author of The Wilderness, about the battle over the future of the Republican Party.
Contact McKay Coppins at email@example.com.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.