Pew Research’s Andrew Kohut wrote an important essay yesterday.

Some might argue that the horse race polls may reflect the old axiom that voters put more emphasis on the person than the party. While this is certainly true, the crucial personal dimension in a period of national discontent, is whether the candidate is seen as an agent of change.

And at this early stage in the game, the Republican front runners might just fill that bill. A recent Pew survey found that most voters make a big distinction between both John McCain and Rudy Giuliani and President Bush. Both candidates are seen as less conservative than Bush, and much closer to the average voter’s own political beliefs. In contrast, Newt Gingrich was the only Republican candidate tested in the Pew poll who was placed right next to the president on a liberal-conservative scale. Gingrich, of course, is not a front runner, and most voters say they will not vote for him, if he is on the ballot in ’08

I want to suggest something. Candidates like Fred Thompson and Mitt Romney are going to have trouble establishing a public identity in the American awareness in ways that are different from George Bush. If the GOP candidate looks like George Bush, just a little different. (more competent, better hair, actually a southerner, better communicator, or whatever), it will not be enough.

Rudy Giuliani and John McCain have a fundamental advantage compared to their Republican opponents. They are a brand distinct from Bush. And they are credible agents of change.

In the end, Republicans will probably have to decide what form of electability they want. Do they want a socially liberal, tough-on-crime, New Yorker? Or do they want a somewhat socially conservative military guy who is interested in reducing the size, but not the scope, of government?

I think that this is an important question because the country faces real problems that I believe the Democrats are not prepared to handle. Our security and foreign policy writ large, entitlement and pension reform, responding to globalization, among others. But, according to polling, the country is not with us:

Beyond discontent with the White House, Pew’s longitudinal polling on political values finds the current attitudinal landscape more favorable to the Democrats. Support for policy positions such as strengthening the social safety net has steadily increased in recent years, along with growing public concern about income inequality. At the same time, many of the key trends that nurtured the Republican resurgence in the mid-1990s have moderated. The proportion of the public supporting traditional social values has edged downward since 1994, as has the proportion of Americans expressing strong personal religious commitment

If this polling is correct, the GOP’s policy agenda may not survive 8 years of a Democratic president. (not to mention the likelihood of a Democratic Senate and House, especially with our incumbent protection racket that we call redistricting)

So, is the question for the GOP, perhaps, who is the candidate between John McCain and Rudy Giuliani to best fight against (and, perhaps, compromise with) the deluge? I am not sure that I believe that this is the question, but I think this way of thinking may be important to consider.