Social conservatives in Iowa and New Hampshire already were reeling from scandals surrounding two Republicans thought to be considering White House runs when Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin shocked the party by announcing her resignation.
Now they aren't sure what to think in the early presidential voting states.
"You have to wonder who will be the standard-bearer for social conservatives in 2012," said veteran Republican strategist Bob Haus. "If they are going to talk the talk, they better walk the walk. Anyone who comes in and claims that mantle had better be pretty clean."
Admissions of extramarital affairs by South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford and Nevada Sen. John Ensign would seem to have ended any presidential ambitions. Palin is popular among the social conservatives who dominate Iowa's Republican caucuses and could get a huge boost from the state should she seek the nomination, but her resignation complicates things.
"She has some work to do to convince people they can trust her," Haus said. "Unfortunately it's all self-inflicted."
Maintaining good standing in Iowa is especially important if Palin seeks the presidency because her stances line up well with the state party's social conservatism. In contrast, Republicans in New Hampshire — home to the nation's first primary — tend to be more fiscally conservative and socially moderate.
Polls on possible 2012 candidates have shown Palin behind former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in New Hampshire, likely due in part to the state's preference for more moderate candidates, said Andrew Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center.
Smith said Palin could have a chance there in 2012, but didn't help herself by quitting her job.
"I don't think any way you can square it can be seen as good for her right now — it may turn out to be good down the road — but right now she's in a difficult spot," he said.
Presidential primaries and caucuses may be years off, but Iowa Christian Alliance head Steve Scheffler said Palin's resignation has left many people so confused she needs to act quickly if planning to be in the 2012 mix.
Winning in Iowa requires courting state politicians and activists, even when a candidate is not facing the kind of uncertainty that's enveloped Palin.
"I think she has to come to Iowa and convince people she can be a leader," Scheffler said. "She's going to have to prove that to caucus-going Iowans, and she has to come to Iowa over and over again."
New Hampshire is a bit less of a pressure cooker.
"In some sense, the stakes are a bit lower for her here," said Dante Scala, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire. "A strong second place would be fine in a state where the electorate is going to be more moderate than it would be in an Iowa Republican primary."
Palin, Ensign and Sanford all had strong potential followings in Iowa, where the party has become increasingly controlled by social conservatives even as overall voting has become more Democratic. Barack Obama easily won the state last year, and Democrats hold the governorship, both legislative chambers and three of five congressional districts.
Sioux City businessman Bob Vander Plaats, who is seeking the GOP nomination for governor, said conservative Republicans can recover — but in a state where presidential politics is a never-ending sport, recent events haven't helped their cause.
"For conservatives to win again, they need to be trusted," Vander Plaats said. "I don't know if it damages the brand, but it means there's a little bit of sorting out that needs to be done."
There's no indication the recent upheaval will cause conservatives to lose their grip on Iowa's state party, especially in caucus politics dominated by activists rather than more casual voters who only show up at general election time.
Senate Minority Leader Paul McKinley, of Chariton, said he's confident voters will evaluate Republicans on issues rather than bombshells.
"I think the party will be judged on solution to problems that Republicans come up with," McKinley said. "I think some individuals have had a bad few weeks."
Still, Republican Sen. Ron Weick, of Sioux City, said it's foolish to dismiss the party turmoil.
"Obviously it causes damage," Weick said. "I guess the only thing that I see is we can't expect it to be a perfect world."
Whether voters turn away from the GOP remains to be seen, but many party members aren't ready to count anyone out, or in, just yet.
"I certainly don't think this would take Sarah Palin out of the running in New Hampshire," said Phyllis Woods, a Republican National Committeewoman from Dover, N.H. "We're just like the rest of the country, we're waiting to see who else may be running."