‘SLAMMIN’ AND RAMMIN’…. The tension between party officials and party activists has become increasingly apparent this morning. Republicans focused on Sonia Sotomayor’s nomination just don’t seem to be on the same page.

I initially thought it would be an outsourcing situation, in which the GOP would rely on activists to say what officials couldn’t. But as of this morning, party officials seem to think the activists are just embarrassing the whole gang.

RNC chair Michael Steele, guest-hosting on Bill Bennett’s radio show early this morning, repeatedly distanced himself from Republicans and conservatives who have been harshly attacking Sonia Sotomayor, saying the assault risked damaging the party. […]

In what seemed like an effort to distance the party from claims that Sotomayor is “racist” and an “Affirmative Action” pick, Steele repeatedly said that Republicans should be hailing the historic nature of Obama’s pick.

“I’m excited that a Hispanic woman is in this position,” Steele said. He added that instead of “slammin’ and rammin’” on Sotomayor, Republicans should “acknowledge” the “historic aspect” of the pick and make a “cogent, articulate argument” against her for purely substantive reasons.

Steele warned that because of the attacks, “we get painted as a party that’s against the first Hispanic woman” picked for the Supreme Court.

This came shortly after Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, denounced attacks from Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich as “terrible” and “wrong.”

These are the responses of party leaders who see a debate going in a very unhelpful direction. Steele’s awkward rhetoric notwithstanding, the fact that he felt compelled to issue this warning to his own party suggests the RNC chairman is getting awfully nervous.

As well as he should be, given the rhetoric coming from Gingrich, Limbaugh, Rove, Barnes, Tancredo, et al.

There’s probably a realization — if there’s not, there should be — that most Americans are unlikely to make a distinction between Republican activists and Republican elected officials. When the activists smear the first Latina nominee for the Supreme Court, it’s the latter that will feel the electoral repercussions. The takeaway is “Republicans attack Sotomayor, using racist tactics.” That’s obviously a repugnant development for people of decency, but in a political context, it’s a disaster for the party.

No wonder Steele and Cornyn are scrambling.

Post Script: Yes, it’s possible that Steele and Cornyn are cheering on the unhinged activists behind the scenes, knowing that Newt and Rush can get away with screeds that those in positions of responsibility cannot. But I doubt it. GOP officials, I suspect, know this is hurting their party. There’s no upside to the attacks.

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Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.