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Republicans are waiting

NORTH CONWAY, N.H. -- Stand in the center of this famous old town and look to the north. There's Mount Washington with its early-May mantle of white clinging to the ravines. Look to the east and there's Mount Cranmore, the storied ski hill still with traces of snow. All about there is the feeling that the transition to the new season hasn't quite arrived.

So it is with the political season that is beginning in this state, for six decades the site of the first presidential primary. The struggle for the Republican presidential nomination hasn't really begun. Indeed the field, like so many of the old farms along the rural byways, seems almost empty right now.

In other years when the political field seemed incomplete, there was a giant on the sidelines, contemplating his options. One time it was California Gov. Pete Wilson, another it was Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson. Both Republicans were duds once real campaigning began in North Country towns like this and in the cities and suburbs to the south. Once it was New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo. In the end, a plane destined for Concord, N.H., to file campaign papers never took off, and so the Cuomo campaign didn't take off either.

This time is different. There is no giant abroad in the land, weighing a campaign, consulting pollsters and fundraisers about his prospects. The main figure in that position isn't a giant at all, but a diminutive man with an iron will and a gold-plated resume, Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana, whose prospects shot up when a truly large figure, the husky Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi, stepped aside.

There's another reason this time is different. It's the utterly changed landscape since the slaying of terrorist leader Osama bin Laden in a Pakistan mansion where he hid in plain sight. Now President Barack Obama seems like a giant killer, in part because he ordered the killing of a giant figure -- perhaps the biggest so far of the 21st century.

Where once the president seemed weak, indecisive, even lacking in audacity -- I wrote these things myself only some weeks ago -- now he seems strong, decisive, audacious. Where once he seemed overwhelmed by the problems that came to his in-box, he now seems confident and efficient in dealing with them and perhaps even ready to begin some new initiatives of his own.

There has been no more dramatic a transformation of an American president in decades. Ones that come close include Gerald R. Ford's pardon of Richard M. Nixon, which worked to his disadvantage in the polls but not in history; Nixon's trips to China and Soviet Russia, which worked to his advantage both in the polls and in history; and Harry Truman's firing of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, which now is regarded as having re-established one of the bedrock principles of American civic life.

The other major effect of the bin Laden killing is to diminish some of the peripheral figures on Republican lists, especially businessman and television figure Donald Trump, who was transformed from caricature to cartoon in a few hours' time. No president since Andrew Jackson has had a coiffure remotely like Trump's, whose hair has the second disadvantage of eerily bringing to mind the great lesson from Richard Nixon: The cover-up is worse than the crime. Many Republicans, several of whom graciously praised the president, increasingly believe they cannot prevail next year with a cast of characters who are the political equivalents of the stand-ins who played big-league baseball from 1942 to 1945.

I have argued in this space that the eventual challenger to Obama will rise in stature and in prospects merely by possessing the Republican presidential nomination. I still believe that. But Joel Goldfield, the St. Louis University political scientist, maintains that major party candidates who win their nominations against a weak or depleted field may be inherently weaker in general elections than those who prevail over a stronger field.

The best example: John F. Kennedy was able to defeat Richard M. Nixon in 1960 in part because he defeated a formidable group of opponents, including Hubert H. Humphrey, Lyndon B. Johnson and Stuart Symington. The same was true of Ronald Reagan, whose 1980 campaign against Jimmy Carter was enhanced because he was able to defeat such rivals as Senate Minority Leader Howard H. Baker Jr., former director of central intelligence George H.W. Bush, former Treasury Secretary John Connally and former GOP vice presidential nominee Robert J. Dole.

"A strong field greatly helps the candidate who ultimately gets the nomination," says Scott Reed, who managed Dole's later campaign, when he won the 1996 GOP nomination only to be defeated by President Bill Clinton. "It makes him or her more substantive, more knowledgeable and more capable in the general-election fight. It really helps to be tested in the primary and caucus season. It's a great warm-up for the general election -- and it's one of the few big advantages you can't buy."

True -- as long as the fight isn't vicious and long, in which case, as James A. Johnson, who managed Walter F. Mondale's 1984 campaign, argues, "The strong field emphasizes everybody's weakness, because a strong field is about differentiation."

Still, the Republicans seem to be seeking the presence of someone else. This new figure -- and his or her identity still seems unknown -- would have plenty to run on, the bin Laden episode notwithstanding.

The public is frantic about gasoline prices, which are in the $4-per-gallon range. Personal experience seems at odds with official figures showing a low inflation rate, with lettuce up 27 percent in a year and coffee up 11 percent. The success against al-Qaida hasn't brought any sense of bipartisanship to Capitol Hill, nor any realistic prospect of attacking a deficit that seems incomprehensible and a set of entitlements that seem insupportable.

So while the president isn't home free yet, the Republican search continues.

Republicans control 29 of the nation's governors' offices, but none besides Daniels is widely known. The situation is the same in the Senate, where Rand Paul of Kentucky and Marco Rubio of Florida are perhaps the most appealing names, but Rubio has stepped aside and Dr. Paul knows that his father is a likely candidate. So for now -- perhaps for a while -- the GOP wait continues.

David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and a longtime political columnist.