Rarely does the New York Times hit the nail on the head, but just as "a stopped clock is right twice a day," a recent Times/CBS poll confirmed that most Republicans (76 percent) don’t know what to make of the party’s candidates for president. Count me among them.

In judging among candidates for president, my checklist is short: commitment to low tax rates and balanced budgets, unwavering on national security, and reliable to appoint judges who adhere to the plain language of the constitution.

Past campaigns offered candidates who were clearly identifiable as a Reagan Republicans — e.g., Jack Kemp, Phil Gramm, Steve Forbes. George W. Bush seemed to fit the mold as a candidate although his record on spending has been a major disappointment.

The choices for 2008 are truly a puzzling lot, but it’s time for us to start making up our minds because, for once, Colorado’s Feb. 5 caucuses might actually matter.

Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor, is rising fast in the polls, especially in Iowa, where he’s tapped into the same evangelical strongholds that propelled Pat Robertson to a second-place finish in 1988. While Huckabee is a dynamic speaker with solid pro-family credentials, his fiscal and economic record is abysmal. Not only did he raise taxes to balance the budget in Arkansas, but he bears all the markings of a big-government nanny-statist with little appreciation for limited government.

Where Huckabee zigs, Rudy Giuliani zags. As mayor of New York, he cut spending in lean years, reduced tax rates, and curbed welfare entitlements. Still, his fiscal instincts are hardly those of Kemp or Forbes, and his record on constitutional freedoms, like free speech and self-defense, leaves much to be desired. On social issues, Giuliani’s strongest asset is former solicitor general Ted Olsen, whose solid constitutional philosophy provides hope that Giuliani’s court appointments won’t be judicial activists.

Mitt Romney says much that a Reaganite wants to hear, but his record in Massachusetts makes you wonder about his core beliefs. In business and as chief of the 2002 Olympics, he proved to be extremely talented. By defending the people’s right to define marriage against an activist supreme court, he earned credibility on constitutional matters and traditional values. He confronted his state’s budget deficit with aggressive spending cuts but his commitment to low tax rates and a simplified tax code are suspect, as is his stand on self-defense.

This year’s field is so confounding that I’ve even taken a second look at John McCain. Like President Bush, he boldly adheres to his convictions whether popular or not, but is maverick reputation and POW credentials appeal to angry voters who are tired of the Clinton-Bush. McCain has a solid record as a budget hawk and a defender of the unborn. However, he is out of step on immigration and his disregard for the First Amendment doesn’t inspire confidence in his judicial appointments.

Fred Thompson could be a tremendous nominee, but his campaign organization just isn’t cutting it. With better execution, Thompson — not Huckabee — would be rising in the polls. His record across the board is the most conservative of the serious contenders — solid on tax cuts, cutting waste, limited government, self-defense and traditional values. His biggest blemishes are his general opposition to tort reform and his support of McCain-Feingold.

Finally, Ron Paul’s fundraising prowess and the intensity of his supporters can’t be ignored. He’s quirky, but he takes the constitution far more seriously than any other candidate of either party. However, his cut-and-run policy on Iraq marginalizes him in the eyes of many who would otherwise respect his principles.

Although this field doesn’t offer the clear contrasts of Reagan vs. Bush or Bush vs. McCain, Republicans owe the voters a credible, principled alternative to Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama.