Fineman: The Power of GOP 2nd-Tier Candidates

Let's hear it for the "second-" and "third-"tier presidential candidates. We'll have world enough and time this year and next to suffer through the purposefully vague rhetoric of front runners. But these are the moments (Thursday night's MSNBC debate at the Ronald Reagan Library is one) for the single-minded, the passionate and the obscure. They can speak their piece and get attention. And this time they might even have the chance to influence the tone, if not the course, of the '08 campaign.

Junkies: what was the most memorable moment of last week's Democrats' debate on MSNBC? Obviously, it was when former senator Mike Gravel, playing Banquo's ghost, haunted the rest of the field with his guilt-inducing Jeremiad against the Iraq War. I'm looking forward to a similar YouTube treasures here.

Most of the attention thus far in the Republican race has focused on the likes of Sen. John McCain, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney. They have big names and the big bucks.

But if you know, as I do, some of the other, putatively lesser, GOP contenders, you have be impressed with the depth of their political passion, their knowledge, and even their track records. They represent, in undiluted form, the vivid primary colors of the conservative movement—dressed in both its modern and throwback uniforms. They are the seeds in the bland bread of modern Republicanism. They are easy to write off, but should not be dismissed, for they represent the result of decades of grass-roots thinking and debate. By the sheer force of their ideas and personalities, expect them to set conservative benchmarks for the frontrunners to meet.

Consider Rep. Ron Paul, a Libertarian Republican from Texas who has opposed the Iraq War from the beginning because of his small-government, isolationist worldview. He is not a nut case but rather a doctor with a degree from Duke Medical School. And he's steeped in a branch of conservative intellectual history that traces its modern lineage to the Founding Fathers.

Most people back East know nothing of Rep. Duncan Hunter of San Diego, but he is a serious character, too—a Vietnam vet and student of military matters who should not be confused with the Duke Cunninghams of the world. You know the anti-illegal fence near his city, the one that is now a model for a larger fence along the Mexican border? That was Hunter's project. Living at the other end of the foreign-policy spectrum from Paul—there is no more dedicated supporter of the use of military power in world affairs—Hunter represents the big-stick tradition now known as neoconservatism. He mixes it up with Democrats, big time.

Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado has made a name for himself as the leading proponent of tough immigration rules and sanctions—far tougher than the ideas the GOP front runners are daring to discuss. You think this doesn't resonate in the core of the base? Of course it does, and the big names know it.

Former Virginia governor Jim Gilmore has some anti-tax cred, not so much for what he did as governor per se but for having been a key player in the drive—so far successful—to prevent the imposition of government taxes on Internet transactions.

Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee is best known for having lost 100 pounds, but as I see it he is one of two candidates—the other is Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas—who represent the pure strain of religious conservatism in the party. Huckabee has the best credential of all on that score: he is an ordained Baptist preacher, and that was his day job before he entered politics. If you are an evangelical Christian, why not be for Huckabee? That way you eliminate the middle man.

Expect all of these serious and substantive candidates to be in the mix—which is why you won't see them in too many more debates. The big shots aren't going to want them around.

Which is too bad.