Would the real Republican candidates for president please stand up?

The field of conservatives willing to say they might challenge Obama in 2012 has gone from almost nobody to anybody with a book or TV show to sell.

The sideshow’s credibility took a hit over the weekend as the likable social conservative Mike Huckabee used his weekly Fox News talk show to tell America that “his heart said no”. He was not the first major figure to pull out, but he was the first to do so while seated at the top of the early polls.

GOP leaders took that news with much gnashing of teeth. Republican Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell despaired the lack of a credible candidate on CNN’s State of the Union the next morning, but suggested the gauntlet itself would craft a nominee who is “going to look a lot better than any of these people look right now”.

There are in fact plenty of credible policy-focused candidates within Republican circles with no book or TV show to sell. Tim Pawlenty, Herman Cain and Rick Santorum look like serious contenders who have taken the technical steps to formally declare a campaign. But without the Hollywood appeal of something to sell, they’re struggling to even be included in national polling.

This problem has gone beyond the typical cycle of horse race coverage. There is simply no room for policy differences within the Republican field, so it takes an artificial leap into crazy birther territory or a captive Fox News audience to get noticed.

The issue of the day in America is balancing the federal budget, where for Republicans there is only one policy talking point: “I believe this is a country that is overspent, not under taxed,” said Newt Gingrich on NBC’s Meet The Press this Sunday. Had any other candidate appeared on the show they would have given an identical statement.

Mitt Romney has made his perceived weakness into his point of difference and line in the sand: the similarity between the health care laws he introduced in Massachusetts and those signed by Obama last year. This week he addressed the issue by saying the individual mandate, compulsory private health insurance, was the right choice for Massachusetts, but the wrong choice for the nation as a whole.

Representative Ron Paul, a figure of genuine difference in the field, joined Gingrich in formally announcing their campaigns for the Republican nomination this week. Romney is expected to do so soon.

But all these figures have staked their reputation on economic conservatism, or in Paul’s case libertarianism. The other side of the Republican party is the social conservatives and religious wing, thought to have been weakened or rendered inert during the last presidential race as proven by the party picking John McCain. However, the last national polls of Republican figures via PPP, Gallup and CNN show quite the opposite: social conservatives dominate, particularly Huckabee.

Take Huckabee and Sarah Palin out of the equation and those polls would suggest the Republican nominee is a neck and neck race between Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney, both with too potentially fatal flaws to their respective wings of the party.

Gingrich is campaigning with his third wife, having admitted affairs during his first two marriages, and his appeals for God’s forgiveness on Christian cable channels were seen as unconvincing. With a reputation of being overly bombastic, the controversial former House Speaker during the Clinton presidency has had to rein himself in from uncontrolled attacks on Obama.

Earlier this week Gingrich found himself accused of racism for calling Obama the “food stamps president”. The full quote, from a speech in Georgia, was nearly lost amid the accusations: “If you want to create food stamps, Obama is an enormous success, the most successful president in American history. Or do you want to be a nation of pay cheques?”

He also has a reputation for repeating at least one provable falsehood in every interview he gives. Yesterday it was the accusation that General Electric, whose CEO is linked to Obama, pays no tax, disproved almost two weeks ago in a ProPublica investigation.

Gingrich asking for a second chance in politics has upset many of the figures who ousted him the first time. Last year Senator Tom Coburn said the former House leader was the last person he’d support for president and doesn’t have the character traits necessary to be a great president.

Among the more amusing candidates, besides Donald Trump, is Jimmy McMillan best known for running in New York governor’s race on the slogan: The Rent Is Too Damn High. The gay rights activist Fred Karger, who campaigns on the slogan “Fred Who?” has also won several campus-based polls.

But while presidential politics consumes most of the US media’s attention, smaller races could do much more to decide the how the future America will look. One such race is the now open senate seat from Wisconsin, where future leaders in both parties are looking reach the next level.

The Republican 2012 budget proposal’s architect and GOP wiz-kid, Representative Paul Ryan, is expected to announce this decision to run this week. While on the left, the only woman to represent the state and the only out lesbian in Congress, Representative Tammy Baldwin, has been urged to run by groups representing the Democratic Party base.

If either one takes that senate seat, they will be leading figures in their respective parties and presumed presidential candidates for years to come.