Washington - For all their bluster about making Barack Obama a one-term president, Republicans are assembling what looks like a remarkably weak field of candidates for the 2012 election -- an odd assortment of the uninspiring and the unelectable.
In part, this reflects a healthy respect for Obama's formidable political skills. If Obama is likely to win anyway, some contenders reason, why spend all the time and effort of a campaign just to end up delivering a concession speech? Why not wait until 2016, when prospects might look brighter?
Still, it's not yet clear what the political and economic landscape will look like next year. The recovery could stall, unemployment could remain unacceptably high, and recent elections prove that the electorate is nothing if not volatile. You'd think that a Republican with credentials and star power could give Obama a run for his money.
If such a Republican could be found.
You know the party is confused when the potential candidate most often mentioned as the front-runner, Mitt Romney, is also thought by many insiders to be incapable of actually winning the nomination.
Romney has it all -- name recognition, anchorman looks, undeniably presidential hair. His ideology could best be described as situational, meaning he would have no compunctions about moving toward the center in the general election.
But how would he ever get there? When he was governor of Massachusetts, Romney designed and implemented a health care reform program that served as a model for the system that Republicans have demonized as Obamacare. The universal health insurance mandate that Republicans call an assault on freedom comes straight out of Romneycare. It's hard to imagine how Romney can ever explain this to Republican primary voters, short of claiming that the mandate was the work of his evil twin.
Sarah Palin is the potential Republican nominee with the most charisma and pizzazz -- and also, perhaps, the one that Democrats would most welcome. Her popularity among far-right GOP voters, who vote heavily in the primaries, is undeniable. It is unclear, however, whether she has the desire and discipline necessary to run a successful campaign for the nomination. It is also unclear how she would hold up under the kind of aggressive media scrutiny that she now avoids by sheltering in the friendly confines of Facebook, Twitter and Fox News.
But let's imagine that Palin wins the nomination. She is so unpopular with independents and Democrats that recent polls show her losing to Obama by what could be a historic margin. According to a recent survey by Public Policy Polling, she trails Obama even in my home state of South Carolina, which is about as solid a Republican bulwark as anyone could imagine.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich keeps making noises about running, and he certainly acts as if he's in campaign mode. He, too, would have a tough time winning South Carolina, according to that PPP poll. More important, however, is that Gingrich by nature is a rhetorical bomb-thrower -- a divider, not a uniter. He would frighten the children, along with the suburban independents whom Republicans must capture to win the White House.
Mike Huckabee, at present, is more of a media figure than anything else. He understands that Americans need to hear a positive message, not just doom and gloom. He would have some trouble in the primaries, however, for the sin of displaying pragmatism as governor of Arkansas.
Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour is a smart and accomplished politician who keeps wounding himself by espousing a revisionist, offensive historical view of race relations in the South. I doubt that most Americans would care to fight the Civil War all over again.
Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty? Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels? Each would have to find a way to stand out from the crowd -- and neither, frankly, has political gifts that approach Obama's.
It says a lot about the Republican field that the winner of the Conservative Political Action Conference straw poll was Texas Rep. Ron Paul, who envisions reducing the federal government to a few clerks writing with quill pens on sheets of parchment. It says even more that the most electric appearance at CPAC was by Donald Trump, whose flirtation with national politics seems more like a special episode of "The Apprentice."
Obama would be foolish to take anything for granted. Circumstances may change; a formidable opponent may emerge. But at this point, one imagines the president is not exactly quaking in his boots.