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Charting the <I>2008</I> GOP Field Chief Political Writer David Paul Kuhn reports from the Republican National Convention

None of them say they want it or that they hope to make the Thursday night nomination speech in 2008. But the star performers at the Republican National Convention already have the Oval Office in their sights.

And to be sure, the GOP bench is packed with talent: where Democrats have two contenders – Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York – the Republicans have a half-dozen.

Most mentioned by delegates gathering on the convention floor Tuesday night were former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Arizona Sen. John McCain, who both made primetime speeches on the RNC's opening night.

West Virginia delegate Fred Gillespie didn't flinch in putting his support behind Giuliani.

"Giuliani is the first New Yorker I've ever liked," Gillespie says, chuckling. "They're brash and in your face, you know, they're New Yorkers."

But Giuliani's pretty brash, isn't he?

"I know, but the guy sings my music," Gillespie replies, waving his arms excitedly. "A guy tries to do you in, do him in first."

In this post-Sept. 11 era it's clear that Republican delegates, who traditionally are right of their party, care most about national security when choosing the commander-in-chief.

"[Giuliani's] opinion on pro-choice is something that would have to be dealt with but I don't think that has to do with how he'd run the country," Texas delegate J.D. Jose said. "To me, it has to do with sense of leadership."

For delegates, moderate views on domestic issues are trumped by national security credentials, says Alabama delegate Luther Waller.

"I've admired Giuliani ever since the 9/11 crisis," the retiree says. "The speech last night only reinforced my belief that he is an electable politician."

Giuliani's national security credentials trace themselves to one day: Sept. 11, 2001. John McCain's experience surrounds five years, decades ago. The Vietnam War veteran spent that long as a prisoner of war.

It's why Missouri delegate Noel Shull is "very much in favor of John McCain running." Tugging his flag-adorned tie, he adds, "I think his history in the Senate, his record of service to this country and the years he spent as a POW in North Vietnam would serve us all well."

For Shull, it would be "a toss-up" between Giuliani and McCain in 2008. McCain may be adored by moderates but despite his opposition to abortion he is not loved by Christian conservatives. He has alleged they have too big a grip on the GOP.

Lauding McCain is Michael Paris. "Like Paris, Texas," the Texas delegate says. "Not like Paris," and he points downward, cackles and rolls his eyes, "not that other place."

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's name also comes up in presidential conversations. But the Austrian-born former bodybuilder and actor, who headlined Tuesday night's convention lineup, will need the Constitution amended to allow him to be president. The push for legislation has already begun.

Condoleezza Rice is also considered a contender by some. It's unseemly for the national security adviser to attend conventions but she's on delegates' minds. Strong willed, African American, a self-made woman, Rice is formidable.

But the Sept. 11 commission has put her to the fire. It remains unclear if her candidacy was burnt. Washington Alternate Delegate Dorothy Zimmerman says it wasn't.

"I think she's a wonderful woman, very smart. It'd be great to have our first female president be a Republican," Zimmerman continues. "[Rice] is so smart. She has made it on her own. She is just so self confident. I think she knows what she wants to do and makes sure she gets it done."

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Maryland, who chaired the 2004 Republican Convention Platform Committee, is also a contender. Loved by the party's conservative wing, he remains relatively unknown nationally.

New York Gov. George Pataki introduces President Bush Thursday night and may run in 2008. But Americans know New York City's former mayor more than New York State's current governor.

"There are so many people," North Dakota state legislator Judy Lee emphasizes.

But Lee, who works as a real estate broker to pay the bills, is overwhelmed by her options. She needs four years to consider them. But the bench, Lee says, is "really exciting."

The West Virginia delegate, Gillespie, disagrees with Lee. There's only one candidate, he asserts.

"All these others, they can't see Giuliani's taillight; they're way back," he says, laughing.

"Look what he did for New York. It used to be that there were people in the streets, it was dangerous. He got rid of them," Gillespie says. "Through hook or crook, I don't know how he did it. I don't ask why, just do it buddy."

By David Paul Kuhn