WASHINGTON - They have jeered a gay soldier, cheered the 234 executions Rick Perry presided over as governor of Texas and hooted their agreement that those who fail to buy health insurance should be allowed to die rather than receive state-financed medical care.
Primary voters in the United States have always been far more ideologically extreme than the general electorate, but the current crop determining the Republican presidential race have taken matters to the next level thanks to the rise of the Tea Party movement and its politically engaged adherents.
"If Ronald Reagan was running for president right now, he'd be far too liberal and too moderate for these people; he probably wouldn't have stood a chance of getting the nomination," Matthew Eshbaugh-Soha, a politics professor at the University of North Texas in Denton, Tex., said Tuesday of the late president widely lionized by the right.
"Especially now, you end up losing in primaries if you're reasonable and moderate, so the whole phenomenon can end up resulting in a much more extreme candidate and a much more extreme, fractured Congress down the line."
Only the most dedicated and ideologically driven party members generally show up to vote in primary elections, Republican or Democrat, Eshbaugh-Soha points out. And the abysmally low turnout for those elections means that during primary season, a small group of ideological voters wield disproportionate influence over the selection of the party's presidential candidate.
Those vying for the White House, therefore, are forced to pander to the small groups of extremists in their parties to win the nomination.
That's why moderate Mitt Romney, a politician who's never shied away from science, is suddenly declaring himself uncertain about climate change while Perry has scrambled to distance himself from his compassionate stances on immigration during his 11 years as governor of Texas.
Both men are attempting to appease the jeering, ultra-right conservatives who could seal their fates in 2012, says Eshbaugh-Soha.
It all makes for entertaining political theatre. NBC's "Saturday Night Live" and late-night comics like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have been gleefully dining out on a series of recent presidential debates that have featured startling feedback from some of the louder neo-conservatives in the crowd.
But the Republican party establishment, on the other hand, is reportedly in despair on two fronts: the mediocrity of the Republican field of candidates and the bad light the Tea Party is shedding on the party as it attempts to win over that powerful bloc of independent voters, who tend to be socially moderate.
Even William Kristol, the man who helped propel onetime Tea Party heroine Sarah Palin onto the national stage in 2008, has blanched.
Under the headline "Yikes," Kristol summed up the flagging spirits of establishment Republicans following the most recent presidential debate that featured some audience members booing a gay soldier who asked the candidates where they stood on the recently repealed Don't Ask, Don't Tell legislation.
"Most won't express publicly just how horrified — or at least how demoralized — they are," Kristol wrote of the party's operatives in an editorial on his Daily Standard website.
The disappointing performance of Perry on the national stage has renewed the Republican elite's fondest wish that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie might throw his hat in the ring, despite his repeated insistence that he's not going to run.
But his brother dashed the party's hopes again on Tuesday.
"I'm sure that he's not going to run," Todd Christie said. "If he's lying to me, I'll be as stunned as I've ever been in my life."
Canadian David Frum, a onetime speechwriter for George W. Bush who's emerged a respected moderate Republican commentator, reiterated in an interview on Tuesday that the future for the Republican party is not currently looking bright given the Tea Party is in the driver's seat.
"There's a style and a sensibility in the Republican party right now that I find myself removed from," he told the Jewish magazine Tablet.
But he added: "You can do more good for the country by working for a better Republican party than by leaving it to the extremists. What have they done to deserve that inheritance?"
Indeed, Eshbaugh-Soha says the clout of the Tea Party this primary season may incite moderate Republicans to become more politically active in future election cycles. That's especially likely if primary voters opt for a 2012 candidate who is unappealing to the general electorate in a year when U.S. President Barack Obama will be vulnerable to defeat.
"Primary voters tend to be more activist, more involved and more demanding, and you might see moderate Republicans begin to realize they can actually change politics," he said.
"Eventually, they will see they can change the dynamic of who runs and who wins by getting involved in greater numbers. For all its flaws, the process is very responsive, after all. It's democracy in action _ candidates do in fact listen to what the voters want and tailor their platforms accordingly."