Editor's note: Gloria Borger is a senior political analyst for CNN, appearing regularly on CNN's "The Situation Room," "AC360°," "John King, USA" and "State of the Union."
Washington (CNN) -- In conversations with Republican strategists and officeholders, the importance of the upcoming election is never understated: Historic, some say. A must-win for the GOP. An election of great consequence for the nation.
All of which may be true. And all of which leads to the next question: Why are so many Republicans running -- away from the race?
First, the obvious. Beating an incumbent president is not easy. Democratic President Jimmy Carter lost to Ronald Reagan, for instance, but that happened only after a divisive primary season within the Democratic Party. President Barack Obama won't have that problem. And while recent polls show an electorate that is unhappy and even depressed about the current state of affairs, Republicans remain unhappily untethered: A majority of GOP voters told CBS News/New York Times pollsters that no one on their current list of contenders is especially inspiring.
To make matters worse, that list continues to shrink before even coming into focus: Conservative Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana, no. South Dakota Sen. John Thune, no. Then Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, the establishment's pol of choice, says no "fire in the belly" to run. Ex-Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who gave John McCain a headache in 2008, is dithering on a decision; ditto for Sarah Palin, who looks less and less like a candidate each day. And they're two of the most favorably rated in the GOP field, such as it is.
Meantime, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas is back for another try. (Really.) And Donald Trump fills the vacuum with daily bloviating about Obama's birth certificate. And angry, anti-establishment Republicans love it -- for now.
"It's like the incredible shrinking field even before it begins," says a prominent GOP strategist. "And it's not a function of people believing the job isn't worth having."
So what is it? Can it be that the Grand Old Party is in a period of transition -- from the old party to the new one? Or that the party that always handed the nomination to the next-in-line may be looking beyond that tired format? Or maybe the establishment holds less appeal to Republicans these days -- at a time when newcomers aren't considered quite ready to take the plunge? Answer: all of the above.
The Republican Party is in search of a brand. Some argue that George W. Bush killed it -- with deficit spending, the war and the first bank bailout. "We're a shell right now," says one House Republican. "And we are not quite sure who we want to be."
It's not that there aren't serious new stars in the Republican party. There are, and they have plenty of ideas about the future. Just look at Rep. Paul Ryan's controversial budget plan, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's willingness to take on public-employee unions or Tea Party fave Sen. Marco Rubio's ascendance to the Senate. It's just that they're, well, new. (One might argue, however, that by 2012, Rubio will have surpassed the national experience offered by candidate Barack Obama.) And Republicans are well-known for sticking with the comfort and reassurance offered by tested candidates. Ask John McCain.
So there is a generation gap -- and the new GOP is not in a hierarchical mood. But there's something more here, too. There's a gap between the latest incarnation of conservatism (Tea Partiers) and those establishment types who offer their experience as a qualification for office (see also: John McCain).
Mitt Romney, for instance, is the man-who-knows-how-to-run things. Michele Bachmann, on the other hand, is the Tea Party's cultural attaché in Washington. Newt Gingrich is trying to be both; watch for ex-Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty to try the same straddle.
"So even if you nominate an establishment guy, the candidate has to become the candidate of the new party," says one GOP strategist who remains a Barbour fan. "And that can be torture."
And there's one more problem for the GOP field: The political agenda is being run by congressional Republicans, not presidential candidates -- for better or worse. In producing a budget that touches Medicare, Paul Ryan has done more to shape the presidential debate than Mitt Romney. While Republicans understand this election needs to be about Barack Obama, Ryan's budget gives the Democrats an opportunity to focus on something else. And in balking at raising the debt ceiling, Tea Party Republicans may well be creating another damaging issue if the government defaults.
"The presidential agenda is being written in the House," says one GOP House leadership aide. "It's the blueprint."
If that's the case, then Republicans are right: This will be an election of great consequence. Unless the GOP field is dwarfed by the task.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Gloria Borger.