By Ramesh Ponnuru

The 2012 presidential race has barely begun, but it's already time to retire one of its clichés: the claim that the Republican field is weak. Liberals say it smirking; conservatives say it hoping someone will enter the race and rescue them - maybe Rep. Paul Ryan, Gov. Christie, or some other shiny new face.

But the GOP field isn't weak. The three most likely nominees - Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, and Jon Huntsman, according to Intrade.com - have all been governors, two of states President Obama carried. By contrast, the top three candidates for the Democratic nomination last time around (Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John Edwards) had a combined zero days of executive experience. Even some of today's long-shot Republicans have stronger resumés: Libertarian gadfly Gary Johnson was a two-term governor of New Mexico.

Romney is well-versed on the issues and fast on his feet. Pawlenty, by addressing voter concerns about health care and traffic congestion while holding the line on taxes, managed to win reelection in blue Minnesota in 2006, when Republicans were routed nationwide. Huntsman was a popular governor of Utah and, as a former ambassador to China, is knowledgeable about the country's most important economic relationship.

All three have real political skills and accomplishments. All can credibly challenge Obama on the economy - Romney and Huntsman because of their business backgrounds, Pawlenty and Huntsman because their states did relatively well under them in the recession. None of them is on the far right, so Democrats wouldn't be able to make the case that the nominee is extreme.

So why the disrespect? Partly because the number of serious contenders is small. If Huntsman doesn't take off, the race could well be between Romney and Pawlenty. The Democratic wave elections of 2006 and 2008 left Republicans with few plausible contenders (although their own wave election of 2010 gave them a deep bench for 2016). And no candidate dominates the field.

Dissatisfaction with the Republican candidates is also a matter of psychology. The incumbent president is sitting in the Oval Office and commanding troops. The GOP candidates are sharing a stage with a bunch of other people, some of them fringe figures. They seem small. They will keep seeming small until some of them start winning primaries and one of them wins the nomination.

Offstage, some Republicans imagine, is the perfect candidate. He has to be offstage, because nobody onstage is perfect. He also has to be offstage because not running is part of his perfection. If he ran, he would be another guy competing for microphone time at the debates. The other candidates would suddenly have an incentive to draw attention to his flaws.

Right now, conservatives think of Rep. Ryan as a bold free-market visionary. Within weeks of his entering the race, he would be redefined as the longtime Washington fixture who voted for TARP, the prescription-drug benefit, the auto bailout, and other bills hated by Republican primary voters.

Fred Thompson thought he could be the white knight in 2007. Then, as now, Republicans were complaining about the lineup. Rudy Giuliani was a pro-choicer with a messy personal history, Romney had flip-flopped too much, and John McCain had committed a long list of apostasies. Republicans saw Thompson the way they see Christie today - as a solid conservative who makes for great tell-it-to-them-straight TV. They pleaded with him to run.

Then he ran, and he stopped looking quite so glamorous. He seemed tired and uncommitted. He won no states.

Finally, the sourness of the national mood is contributing to the negative reviews. Nate Silver of the New York Times notes that the major Republican candidates have lower "favorability" ratings than candidates in previous presidential elections. During the first half of 1999, for example, 63 percent of Americans had a favorable view of George W. Bush, and only 16 percent had a negative one. Romney and the rest are faring much worse.

Silver concludes that the conventional wisdom is right: The field is weak. But the public mood was much sunnier in 1999: 53 percent of Americans said they were satisfied with the direction of the country in one poll, while only 30 percent say so now. Partly as a result, the public is quick to turn on politicians.

Obama may well win reelection. Black and Hispanic voters will surely turn out in greater numbers than in 2010. The economy could improve. The politics of entitlement reform probably still favor Democrats. But if Obama does win, it won't be because the Republicans didn't field any strong candidates.

Ramesh Ponnuru writes for Bloomberg News. He can be reached at rponnuru@gmail.com.