Even though Mitt Romney is the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, having defeated opponents in state primaries across the country in recent months, it's still unclear whether the former Massachusetts governor is leading his party or being led by it.
Over the course of two presidential campaigns beginning in 2008, Romney has sought to reassure the GOP's most conservative wings that he is one of them, that he can be trusted to stick with their ideals. It's arguable whether he's actually been able to erase those doubts or was simply able to wear his more conservative opponents down with vast resources during the 2012 primaries.
Many have expected Romney—who has vacillated over the years from pro-choice to pro-life, from signing gun control legislation to headlining National Rifle Association events, from more moderate stances on immigration to more extreme—to pivot finally again to the middle on issues now that the general election is essentially underway.
The election, analysts predict, will be decided by independent voters in a handful of swing states.
But a series of incidents over the past several weeks that might have provided Romney the opportunity to show Republicans who is driving the election train have passed without a decisive move from the candidate. And it begs the question of whether or not he ever will.
"I think over time he'll take charge and let everybody know who's boss," says Jim DiPeso, vice president for policy and communications at ConservAmerica, a pro-conservation Republican group.
"Somebody with mainstream, pragmatist tendencies like Gov. Romney, it's really hard to run for the nomination of a party that has elements in it that are very loud, very ideological and are prepared to have their way," he says. "So, given the fact that he managed to pull it off without falling under the bus to some of the more ideological competitors that he was running against, speaks to the fact that he's been running ever since the 2008 election ended and he's been focused on getting the job done."
DiPeso says he's optimistic, but without promises, that a Romney administration would be willing to work with his group on a variety of environmental issues.
"I think at heart, Gov. Romney is driven by data, he wants to see the numbers, he's not interested in going off on ideological excursions like some of the more extreme elements within the party," he says.
Earlier this week, however, when an outspoken conservative claimed credit for forcing an openly gay spokesman to quit Romney's staff, the campaign would not return requests for comment in response.
"It's very clear from the Washington Post that he resigned because of pressure that was put on the Romney campaign by the pro-family community," said Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association on his radio show, Focal Point. "So ladies and gentlemen, this is a huge win, and it's a huge win for us in regard to Mitt Romney."
Clarke Cooper, executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans and friend and former colleague of Ric Grenell, the aide who left the campaign, said Fischer could not really take credit for Grenell's exit, but still was sending a message.
"Optically [Fischer] is playing it to his constituency, he's saying look we got rid of the homosexual. What I think it provides is a good lesson learned," he said.
Though Romney and members of his campaign expressed regret for Grenell's departure, it was tepid at best. Similarly, Romney largely took a pass at condemning conservative talk-show powerhouse Rush Limbaugh when he called a Georgetown University law student who wished to testify before Congress on access to contraception a "slut." Romney said just that those are not the words he would have chosen. And when Ted Nugent, a Romney supporter and outspoken rock musician, made comments calling members of the Obama administration criminals and leading to a brief Secret Service investigation, the campaign also declined to respond. More recently, the campaign issued a statement denouncing what it called any "divisive language."