Far from sorting out the candidates, the last two weeks have seen an increase in the number of viable GOP candidates with the rise of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. Just as the Democratic race seems to be solidifying into a two-man (or, man and woman) slugfest, the Republican Party, which historically anoints its front-runner “whose time has come,” is collectively agonizing over what it wants in its eventual nominee. What it decides will determine who will eventually win this fascinating contest. Here are the nominees:

We want a “real conservative” who can appeal to the base. All of the candidates are trying to sell themselves as Ronald Reagan’s rightful “heir” and the “real conservative’ in the race. The problem is that the party is so split on economics, foreign and social policy that all of the candidates can claim a part of the Reagan Legacy, but no one fits the mold absolutely. The conservative movement is divided among the candidates. If a consensus conservative nominee hasn’t emerged by now, chances are he won’t.

We want a “fresh and different” face. That candidate was thought to be Mitt Romney, but he has never caught on nationally. Fred Thompson then sought the mantle, but has receded into the pack. Mike Huckabee is now living the dream, and while his numbers are strong, he still must survive the inevitable scrutiny of his record that is already yielding some interesting stands the governor has taken on taxes, the Cuban embargo and AIDS, to mention three very different issues. Ron Paul is even riding a wave of publicity, though his support is still in single digits nationally. As the party in control of the White House and with a fairly conventional group of candidates, it is unlikely that the GOP will attract voters who are alienated from the political system. Democrats have Hollywood and Oprah. The GOP has …

We want a “winner.” There is no doubt that electability is playing a role in this year’s contest. It has accounted for the rise of Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who has used his appeal in blue states to blunt his liberal social views. The problem for Giuliani is that he might very well lose as many votes on the right as he gains in the center. His nomination would require lots of attention to piece together a winning coalition, one that has not elected a Republican president since Dwight Eisenhower. Plus there are so many competing claims of electability from the candidates that it is hard to sort all of them out.

In the final analysis, Republican and Republican-leaning independents value experience (Bob Dole), character (George H.W. Bush), authority (Dwight Eisenhower) and a set of conservative principles that can be applied in pursuit of a governing philosophy (Ronald Reagan). If Democrats are going for the most alienated voter, Republicans must nominate someone who will appeal to and unite soft Republicans, disaffected Democrats and skeptical independents, and who has a strong sense of self-worth, a coherent agenda informed by conservative values, and the experience to fashion solutions to difficult problems. In other words, a grown-up who recognizes the dangerous world he will inherit.

Republican voters should choose John McCain.