Sarah Palin was a long way from home when she took the stage in Ellisville, a little town of 5,000 in southern Mississippi.
The former governor of Alaska, now the unelected matron saint of the conservative Tea Party movement, had come to the Deep South to take up arms in what she called “a clear fight for the future of the Republican Party”. “The eyes of America are on you,” she told the crowd.
She was not wrong. The Senate primary in this deeply conservative state – the race to decide who will be the Republican candidate in November’s Senate election – has become the front line of the party’s long and brutal civil war.
The fighting has been not in the trenches, but in the gutter, with the campaign pockmarked by arrests, alleged affairs and brushes with white supremacists. But behind the ugliness is a serious question: what kind of party do Republicans want? One of ideological purity and rigid conservative principles? Or one flexible enough to attract centrist voters?