This year’s Republican Conservative Political Action Conference gathering in Maryland featured a major dust-up caused by (who else?) Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.

The GOP’s chief ideologue told the conservative crowd that former Sen. Bob Dole. Sen. John McCain and former Gov. Mitt Romney were losers as Republicans because they “don’t stand for principle.”

Dole, now 90, delivered a sharp rebuke from his home: “I was one of President Reagan’s strongest supporters, and my record is that of a traditional Republican conservative.”

So the “elephant party” once again drops the gauntlet. While Democrats salivate, Republicans tear themselves apart fighting for the title of “most conservative.”

This goes on while the moderate middle of all Americans drive all politicians’ poll numbers into the basement.

What the country is really looking for is an end to partisan polarization and some bold new ideas.

Stark ideology is not the answer, and it certainly is not unprincipled to recognize that the majority of voters are neither far right nor far left. The public longs for principled candidates who are independent enough to stand on personal principles. We all crave candidates who listen to their constituents, understand what they want, know what is best for our country and, with steadfast independence from the party line, take their principled stand while still adhering to personal beliefs and values.

McCain, 77, took Cruz to task for questioning the principles of Dole, who McCain said, “stood for principle on a hilltop in Italy when he was gravely wounded and left part of his body there fighting for our country.” McCain himself was a U.S. Navy pilot, severely injured in the Vietnam War. His plane was shot down and he spent more than five years in a prisoner of war camp.

Cruz should indeed, be ashamed of himself and his remarks, as he and fellow ideologues tear their party to shreds.

Dole, McCain and Romney lost because their opponents and their party waged more effective campaigns. Their losses had nothing to do with principle. Their courage and character are unquestionable.

The list of potential Republican candidates in the next presidential election is long but not unexpected when a president will soon be term-limited out. Among probable candidates, in addition to Cruz, are Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul (son of Ron Paul), former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Florida Sen. Mark Rubio, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush; former vice presidential candidates Paul Ryan, of Wisconsin, and Sarah Palin, of Alaska, and my favorite, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

If Christie, already under attack from the Dems because of his potential strength in a race against presumptive candidate Hillary Clinton, should miraculously survive a Republican primary, there might be hope for the Grand Old Party after all. It’s a long shot.

Christie certainly is a man of principle and cannot be labeled an ideologue.

The fight within the Republican Party exposes the sharp division between the far right and the moderate members who serve in Congress. In telephone calls being received across the nation, Republicans are being asked for contributions to support “tea party” candidates against many good incumbents from their party in 2014 primaries. Trying to drive the party too far right is a tragic mistake. Standing on principle is one thing, but stubborn refusal to be civil and to reach across the aisle for compromise and reasonable solutions accomplishes nothing but gridlock.

It all sounds too familiar.

Let’s wrap up with a study of semantics From Webster’s Dictionary (edited).

Principle: A general truth; a method or rule adopted as the basis for action or conduct; as a man of principle; the primary source from which anything proceeds; a basic doctrine or tenet; an underlying cause; a law on which others are founded or from which others are derived.

Principled: Characterized by, or founded on, ethical principles.

Ideology: A particular system of ideas, especially on social or political subjects; the science of ideas or their understanding ; a system of philosophy which derives ideas exclusively from sensation; abstract speculation, especially of a visionary or impractical nature.

I’ll take the principled man or woman over the one practicing ideology — every time.

Addendum: My vote for a local example of principled politicians goes to Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, who has the courage to stand in the well with sensible, reasonable solutions to big problems, works hard every day for the people, his constituents. Katz exhibits exemplary courage in the teeth of the wind blowing in his face from party ideology. In the House, his protege, Augusta freshman Corey Wilson, has earned a similar distinction. Political courage is hard to find, but a few still have it.

Don Roberts is a former city councilor and vice chairman of the Charter Commission in Augusta. He is a trustee of the Greater Augusta Utility District, and a representative to the Legislative Policy Committee of Maine Municipal Association.