Conservatives are frustrated by how often the Republican Party is represented by politicians who are not "genuine" conservatives. In the last several years, the Party nominated George Bush Sr., Bob Dole, and John McCain--all of whom are widely considered RINOs. Even George W. Bush inspired a feeling of betrayal among conservatives who felt he was not fiscally conservative enough. The Republican-controlled Congress at the time faced the same criticism. In many ways, the Tea Party resulted from the buildup of this frustration.
The Tea Party wing of the Republican Party is fearful that yet another RINO will win the 2012 primary. Are their fears justified? Let us consider the Elephant Watcher roster of candidates and the information contained in their Profiles. Each candidate is ranked on a scale of 1-3 on his "perceived conservatism."
Only Donald Trump (before he left the race) was given a low ranking; there were real doubts about whether he was even a Republican, let alone a conservative. Three active candidates have a medium ranking. These face consistent criticism from the right about their conservative credentials: Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, and Mitt Romney. Paul is rarely the subject of much conversation, but Gingrich and Romney are frequently labeled RINOs. Recently, Gingrich and Romney have made blunders that reinforced this negative perception.
But it doesn't end there. Even most of the candidates with high perceived conservatism are tagged with the RINO epithet--at least, in certain quarters. Chris Christie is critiqued on gun control, Mitch Daniels (before departing) for his "truce" remark, Tim Pawlenty for once supporting cap-and-trade, and Rick Santorum as an accomplice to the big-spending Republican Congress.
Are all of these people really Democrats in disguise? Most primary voters are unlikely to see it that way. Polling has been done on which candidates Republicans will not support. For most, the attitude seems to be something to the effect of, "If Chris Christie is a RINO, then we need more RINOs."
Taken at face value, "RINO" appears to mean, roughly, "Anyone who is not Sarah Palin or Michele Bachmann." Tea Party favorite Herman Cain has not yet been tarred as a RINO, but given enough time, even he might be. (It's worth pointing out that each of these RINO-proof candidates has low perceived electability. That suggests the term is being employed against others as a kind of defense mechanism.) Enthusiastic supporters of one candidate or another are a bit too quick to dismiss every other candidate as a RINO. When one hears the label being used, it should be taken with a grain of salt.