One of the most striking features of the turn the presidential race has taken since the first debate in Denver is the forbearance of conservatives toward Mitt Romney’s turn toward a more moderate tone. My favorite example of this was the Wall Street Journal editorial page, which just prior to the Denver debate scolded Romney for hiding his tax cut plan under a bushel, and then, after Romney proceeded to hide his tax cuts even further under a bushel that night, followed up a day later with a big editorial... defending Romney’s new, soft-pedaled language on taxes. The explanation was clear: conservatives were thrilled that Romney had scored a debate win against Barack Obama, and were all of a sudden willing to grant him all sorts of leeway if he was suddenly going to have a real shot at winning the White House.

But it was hard to watch the second debate last night and not wonder whether the formerly “severely conservative” Romney was putting the forbearance of conservatives severely to the test. It's one thing to grant Romney a long leash when he’s taking it to the president as he did in Denver. But last night Romney was on the defensive, which surely made more wince-worthy to conservatives lines such as these:

1. Talking up the taxpayer-funded scholarship program he oversaw in Massachusetts and vowing to increase Pell Grants (a reversal of Romney’s campaign plank to cut less needy students from the grant rolls): “When I was governor of Massachusetts, to get a high school degree, you had to pass an exam. If you graduated in the top quarter of your class, we gave you a John and Abigail Adams scholarship, four years tuition free in the college of your choice in Massachusetts, it’s a public institution. I want to make sure we keep our Pell grant program growing.”

2. Talking up the affirmative action he practiced as governor. “And—and so we—we took a concerted effort to go out and find women who had backgrounds that could be qualified to become members of our cabinet. I went to a number of women’s groups and said, ‘Can you help us find folks,’ and they brought us whole binders full of women. I was proud of the fact that after I staffed my Cabinet and my senior staff, that the University of New York in Albany did a survey of all 50 states, and concluded that mine had more women in senior leadership positions than any other state in America.” Leave aside the comedic potential of “binders full of women,” or the fact that Romney did not in fact go to the women’s groups, as he describes (they came to him)—what he was doing in this riff is giving a full-throated endorsement of the sort of diversity-in-the-workplace policies many conservatives deride.

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3. Framing his stance in the contraception debate defensively, without the "war on religion" line from earlier in the campaign: “I’d just note that I don’t believe that bureaucrats in Washington should tell someone whether they can use contraceptives or not. And I don’t believe employers should tell someone whether they could have contraceptive care of not. Every woman in America should have access to contraceptives. And the president’s statement of my policy is completely and totally wrong.”

4. Seeming to endorse something along the lines of the American Dream Act for young people in the country illegally: “The kids of those that came here illegally, those kids, I think, should have a pathway to become a permanent resident of the United States and military service, for instance, is one way they would have that kind of pathway to become a permanent resident.” In the past, Romney has held out this pathway only for people in the military; here, he stated it much more broadly.

And then there is, again, the matter of Romney’s vagueness on his tax cut plan, which, as Ezra Klein notes, should make conservatives uneasy:

Conservatives should find tonight’s transcript worrying. Romney’s answers were worst when he was describing how he’ll accomplish his key conservative goals. He’s clearly not committed to the kind of tax reforms needed to pay for his tax cuts, and given his insistence that he won’t pass any tax cuts that increase the deficit or cut taxes on the rich, it’s hard to see how he’ll be able to pass large tax cuts at all. The same is true on his spending cuts, where he’s been, if anything, vaguer than on his tax cuts. Again, it’s hard to see a candidate this afraid of trying to sell the American people on the details necessary to make conservative policies work actually following through on those policies.

So, will conservatives keep standing for this? Dana Milbank checked in with some of the usual suspects for his column today, and they assured him they would: 

“I hear all this as tonal,” Grover Norquist, the Republican purity enforcer and keeper of the antitax pledge, told me. Romney’s new pledge that his tax cuts wouldn’t increase the deficit, for example, could be honored simply by using an alternative accounting method, known as “dynamic scoring,” that conservatives favor. “You’re now in the general election and you’ve already convinced conservatives why they should vote for you,” Norquist said of Romney. “You’re now talking to undecided voters, who have a completely different set of issues.”

As long as Romney’s polling surge continues, we’ll be hearing more of the same tolerance. But if Obama manages to get momentum back, I suspect we could start hearing hints of dissatisfaction again. This dynamic matters not just for the depth of Romney’s base support heading into November 6, but also for whatever follows. If Romney wins, conservatives will be sure to make instantly clear to him that the leash has been snapped tight again—a reminder that may not even be necessary to the extent that Romney himself is just fine with reverting to the party’s “severely conservative” agenda.

More interesting will be to see how this dynamic plays out if Romney loses. It’s been assumed all year that conservatives will conclude from a Romney loss that he simply wasn’t conservative enough, even though he had done his utmost to cast himself in that mold. The question is, how does conservatives’ toleration for the recent Moderate Mitt incarnation change that? It would seem a bit rich for conservatives to allow, and even encourage, Romney to go soft in the home stretch, only to turn around and pin a defeat on said softness. But that doesn’t mean they won’t try.

follow me on Twitter @AlecMacGillis