Editor's note: Gloria Borger is CNN's chief political analyst, appearing regularly on shows such as "AC360," "The Situation Room," "John King USA" and "State of the Union."
(CNN) -- After watching the GOP presidential debate the other night, it was hard to avoid this conclusion: Mitt Romney looks more and more like the GOP presidential nominee. He's the best debater. He's got his issues and his rejoinders down pat. He brushes away his opponents like lint on his lapel. And all with such ease.
That said, there's a teensy problem he just can't seem to beat: Conservatives don't like him. Or trust him. Or really want him to be the GOP nominee.
Sure, you say, Republicans never like their nominees, and they still manage to vote for them. There is truth to that: At this point in 2007, John McCain was still at 17% in the polls. Eventually, only Sarah Palin could make him palatable to conservatives. The Bushes were never right-wing faves. Neither were Richard Nixon or Gerald Ford. Even Ronald Reagan had candidates running to his right. And as for Bob Dole, well, he was suspect, but at least he was a war hero.
This year was supposed to be different. This was to be the time for the tea party to flourish and nominate a true believer. It's the moment, we were told, for an out-of-the-box Republican who would be against everything Barack Obama supports, like health care reform or bank bailouts.
Fine, except that Mitt Romney's Massachusetts health plan was a model for Obama (as the president fondly points out). And Romney told us during the debate that he supported the bank bailouts. ("Action had to be taken.")
If this keeps up, the tea partiers will be back at the harbor -- throwing themselves in.
Or, they can decide to suck it up and try to win.
The problem with purity in politics is that it's hard to find the perfect human torch-bearer. (Just ask evangelicals about the Pat Robertson campaign. Or liberal Democrats about President Obama.) The tea party movement was always about ideas, but when it searched for a sole leader, it came up short. Sarah Palin? She's off giving a big-bucks speech in South Korea this week, and when she's back, she'll continue feeding money into her PAC. Michele Bachmann is fading fast. Rick Perry's quick rise has been matched only by his precipitous decline. And Herman Cain could be another shooting star.
So much for perfect.
Political disappointment for purists is hardly a new development.
"This is what has happened regularly since 1984 with the religious right," said GOP strategist Vin Weber, now aligned with Mitt Romney. "I think they will get past this, because they really want to beat Obama."
In other words, Romney's plausibility as a winner will trump his obvious deficits as a conservative leader.
"The tea party folks will go home and say they're not happy with the nomination process," added unaffiliated GOP strategist Scott Reed. "Then they will say that 'whomever we nominate will be better than Obama.' "
Or, as Memphis Tea Party Chairman Mark Skoda told my colleague Kevin Bohn: "The last perfect person I recall is Jesus. ... We have had the rhetoric. Now we want some steadiness."
To be sure, Skoda's openness to Romney is not a universal view. The co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots, for instance, says, "People in the movement are still pretty skeptical about Romney." But, Jenny Beth Martin tells Bohn, "If it comes down to Romney or Obama, come back and ask me." OK, we will. But we already know the answer.
So does this potential receptiveness to Romney dilute the tea party into an ineffective -- and unimportant -- movement? Not exactly. Inevitably, new political movements do lose influence as they mature. They initially inject a huge amount of energy into the process, as the tea party did in the 2010 midterm elections. New political organizers and leaders are born. New issues are highlighted. But then comes the self-selection: The serious reformers remain. Those who can't accommodate political reality drop out of the process.
And wait for the next unelectable true believer to come along.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Gloria Borger.