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Volunteer Clare Frew puts away a cut-out of Mitt Romney at a Republican campaign office in Savannah, Ga.Stephen Morton/The Associated Press

Mitt Romney will go down in history as a candidate of missteps. From the infamous "47 per cent" video to his criticism of diplomats as they were under attack in the Middle East; from insulting Londoners during a foreign jaunt to turning over his party's convention to Clint Eastwood and an empty chair, the Republican nominee could scarcely go a few days without a blunder.

What will be easy to forget is that the presidential campaign was his to lose. Up against an incumbent rendered vulnerable by a slow economic recovery, not to mention a disillusioned Democratic base, a Republican candidate who looked good on paper had an attainable path to victory.

Mr. Romney was gracious in defeat. "I so wish that I had been able to fulfill your hopes," he told a subdued throng of supporters, saying that he and his wife, Ann, will pray for the success of President Barack Obama and "this great nation."

Nevertheless, his loss leaves a man who has succeeded in almost everything else he has done – private business, state politics, rescuing the Salt Lake City Olympics – contemplating what might have been.

It is a cautionary tale about what happens when a campaign fails to find the core of its candidate and sell it to the electorate. The result will force Republicans to define their soul, as they debate whether it was Mr. Romney or the party that allowed Barack Obama to stay in office.

Some of Mr. Romney's struggles were inevitable, given the difficulty any millionaire venture capitalist might have in connecting with middle-class voters. But he made his life harder by spending too much time trying to be something he was not.

Mr. Romney's comfort zone is that of a moderate business conservative. Here in Massachusetts, he campaigned as a relative centrist, first in an unsuccessful Senate run against Ted Kennedy and then in a winning bid for governor. And he governed as one, adopting socially liberal positions and working with Democrats on bipartisan compromises – not least on a health plan that bears some resemblance to Mr. Obama's.

So the version of Mr. Romney who emerged for most of this year's campaign was virtually unrecognizable to some of the people who voted for him at the state level. Suddenly, and unconvincingly, he was a self-described "severe conservative" not just on fiscal policy, but on everything from immigration to social issues such as abortion.

He didn't abandon his liberal home state, basing his campaign there despite little expectation he could carry it. But his headquarters, a desolate industrial building at the edge of Boston's north end, might as well have belonged to an outsider. And even before disheartened Republicans began to trickle out, his election-night gathering was tiny compared to Mr. Obama's in Chicago, showing how differently they're viewed in their hometowns.

Mr. Romney's rightward shift was attributed to the need to win over Republicans during a primary season in which they enjoyed fleeting love affairs with more hard-line candidates. The strategy, though, continued when he had the nomination locked up. When Mr. Romney named Tea Party favourite Paul Ryan as his running mate, in August, he was still focused on securing his base.

That may have worked; if Mr. Romney achieved anything in this campaign, he made even evangelical voters think little of voting for a Mormon candidate. But it is an unlikely coincidence that Mr. Romney's surge in the campaign's final month coincided with his makeover as a moderate.

As Mr. Romney identified himself as someone capable of working with Democrats to reach bipartisan solutions, he was more confident. That was obvious in the first of the debates, when his strong performance (and Mr. Obama's weak one) catapulted him back into the race. And he performed much more smoothly after that, with fewer gaffes.

If we now know that Mr. Romney ran better as a moderate than as a hard-liner, that does not mean there will be a consensus among Republicans about the lessons from this race. On the contrary, there will be two different interpretations from two sides of their party.

The relatively centrist party establishment, under siege in recent years, will argue the verdict is a sign that Republicans need to stop pandering to their base. They'll cite moments such as senatorial candidate Todd Akin's "legitimate rape" outburst as contributors to Mr. Romney's defeat, and argue that remaining on the hard right will make victories harder to come by – costing female voters and shrinking their map because of growing immigrant populations.

The increasingly powerful Tea Party faction will counter that the problem wasn't going too far right; it was settling for a candidate who didn't believe what he was selling. That case will be impeded by Tuesday's defeat of some Tea Party darlings. Nevertheless, that side will use Mr. Romney's defeat to try to strengthen its grip on the party and make sure the next presidential nominee is a fellow traveller.

Out of all this, the Republicans could wind up even more divided than they already are. But if nothing else, the two sides should be able to agree that in 2016, they'll need a candidate better able to articulate a consistent agenda.

A victory by Mr. Romney could have united those two sides, at least for a time. Instead, they risk being more divided than ever, while the man who could have been president is left to contemplate what might have been.