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Something's missing.

Or maybe that's not quite right. Maybe it's: Someone's missing.

Listen to Republicans these days and look at their presidential field, and you sense a vacuum.

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Twice in a few days The Wall Street Journal editorial page called for someone new to join the GOP presidential race. First it was quite explicitly Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the chairman of the House Budget Committee and the darling of the conservative intellectual elite. He demurred last week.

Then the Journal called for someone else, and it was hard to avoid the thought that the description of the certain someone was someone certain (probably former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida). Who else fits this description of the perfect prom date: a leader who "might combine Mr. Ryan's reform ambitions and the seriousness of his message with executive competence and a record of achievement at the state level?"

Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, maybe. Gov. Paul LePage of Maine, absolutely not. But Bush said he's not running either -- but he did deliver a strong warning to the 2012 candidates: "If you're a conservative, you have to persuade," he said on Fox News. "You can't just be against the president."

No party has been so openly dissatisfied with its own roster of candidates since the Democrats' contenders for their nomination in 1988, when the party's field was dubbed the "Seven Dwarfs." But look at those dwarfs and you might wonder about the description.

Bruce Babbitt became a distinguished Interior secretary. Michael S. Dukakis holds the record for service as governor of Massachusetts. Richard A. Gephardt became majority leader of the House. Paul Simon is remembered as a cerebral and important senator. Jesse Jackson will be in your grandchildren's history books. Al Gore and Joseph R. Biden Jr. became vice president and Gore won the Nobel Peace Prize. Those candidates were dwarfs only when compared at the time with the candidates the party really wanted, Mario M. Cuomo, who decided not to run, and Gary Hart, who left the race after a sex scandal.

And the reason the so-called big guns, including Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, didn't run in 1987 was far different from the reasons the conservative Kalashnikovs aren't running in 2011. Those who stood down in 1987 thought they couldn't win. That's not the reason the Republicans are running away from running for president now, with a weak incumbent in the White House. It may be that they don't want to be in a debate that seems to favor the tone of the tea party, the issues of the social conservatives and the rhetoric of the absolutists.

Before we continue, let's acknowledge that for a good chunk of Republicans, and maybe for a majority of Republican primary voters and caucus participants, there's nothing awry with this field, which includes, among others, Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, Gov. Rick Perry of Texas, former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, New Hampshire, California, Michigan and Utah (candidates listed alphabetically and not in order of electoral power).

But the GOP field is taking on the tone and timbre of last year's Senate races in Nevada and Delaware, where tea party activists swept high-caffeine candidates into the general election who were unacceptable to the remainder of Republicans, to large slices of independents and to most Democrats. Even in years when the incumbent president is unusually vulnerable, American primary elections are run at the extremes but general election races are run in the middle.

That's what worries some Republicans, and not only the regulars. But that's not the only thing that troubles them. They're uncomfortable with the putative front-runner, Romney, who didn't cultivate much populist appeal last week when he announced he wanted to quadruple the size of his home in California, a state where most politicos didn't even know he owned a home. (Average price for a house in La Jolla this month, including the 2.3 percent drop in real-estate prices: $2,399,832.)

Having a big bank account, or several big houses, isn't on the face of it a disqualification for president. (Setting aside the Bushes, Republican presidents of recent vintage have tended to have modest finances, while Democrats have had their share of plutocratic presidents, including liberals such as Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy.) And on the surface, Romney is the sort of candidate the Republican gallery would be yearning for ... if he weren't in the race.

Indeed, in many ways Romney is a textbook Republican nominee -- someone who (like Thomas E. Dewey, Richard M. Nixon, George H.W. Bush, Robert J. Dole and John McCain) ran before, has a conservative record, is business-oriented, is regarded as intelligent, has a record of success, is articulate and has a history of marital fidelity. What's not to like?

In two words: health care. Romney's support of the Massachusetts health care plan, which Democrats gleefully point out was a model for the Obama health care plan, is the stain he cannot expunge. It so repelled conservatives that many of them cannot support Romney. Others distrust his avowed conservatism, worrying that it is a costume of convenience for the primary season. Indeed, Democrats believe that the best thing about Romney is that he doesn't believe a thing he says -- the sort of critique, by the way, that they offered of George H.W. Bush, only to watch him in office nominate Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court.

Like most candidates on the sidelines, Jeb Bush, Chris Christie and George Pataki look a lot more appealing out of the race than they might on a debate panel. If they doubt that, they might consult Pete Wilson, Fred Thompson and perhaps even Rick Perry.

David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette. Email him at dshribman@post-gazette.com

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