Mark Kleiman's with me that Mitt Romney would make the least-bad president of anyone in the field. Kevin Drum sort of agrees with us but got disturbed after talking to Hugh Hewitt: "Hugh is a smart guy and a consummate Republican Party apparatchik, and he supports Romney. I don't remember all the specific details of why he prefers Romney, but just in general he obviously thinks that Romney is the most reliably conservative candidate in the GOP field."
A couple of general observations here before delving into the case for Romney (relative, of course, to the GOP alternatives). One would be that "most conservative" is not the same as "worst" unless you just define conservative to mean "bad stuff." George W. Bush has, after all, actually departed from conservative tradition in a number of ways, they've just mostly been bad ways that involve him being corrupt and/or crazy (for example "By our efforts, we have lit a fire as well - a fire in the minds of men. It warms those who feel its power, it burns those who fight its progress, and one day this untamed fire of freedom will reach the darkest corners of our world") rather than Bush being moderate. Another observation is that one thing a smart Republican apparatchik would want in a GOP president would be for that president to do a decent job and undue some of the damage Bush has done to the brand.
The affirmative case for Romney as the least-bad Republican involves stealing an insight from my colleague Josh Green: The constant throughout Romney's career is a cautious, paint-by-numbers approach. He's running as a conservative right now, and that means that if he wins he'll govern as a conservative -- no use hoping for him to morph back into the moderate he was in 1994 or 2002. But that said, it seems very unlikely that he'd roll the dice on some hair-brained scheme if elected. He might do major harm, but I think it's relatively unlikely.
Compare this to, say, John McCain. He's flighty as hell. For years, he's an orthodox conservative. Then he's an orthodox conservative who also supports this one ill-conceived campaign finance restriction. Then he's running for president. Now suddenly Pat Roberston and Jerry Falwell are forces of evil. Then Bush beats him with some sleazy campaign stunts. Now he wants to regulate carbon emissions! And import drugs from Canada! Bush sucks, he's evil and corrupt and incompetent and wrecking the country and oh he's up for re-election well of course I'll strongly support him etc., etc,. etc. Then the establishment warms up to him so he warms up to the establishment. So now he supports the Bush tax cuts and the Bush plan for Iraq and the Bush immigration plan. Oh wait voters don't like the Bush immigration plan? Well then I've learned my lesson and I was never for amnesty and by the way I'm now against carbon curbs. But you know what's great? The surge. And Joe Lieberman in his crazy uncle phase. And David Petraeus. Petraeus is so great that I think civilian control of the military is obsolete and I won't say whether or not I think tax cuts increase revenue but let's cut spending a lot, eh?
In other words, on eighty percent of issues McCain seems to me to be making it up as he goes along. At his best, he's cravenly flip-flopping according to the political headwinds. But other times, he just seems to be acting on whim or out of pique. Or he's coming to middle-ground positions that don't make sense, like "global warming is real and we should stop it, but only through measures that wouldn't actually stop it!" The rest of the time, he's just really, really, really committed to the military and to militarism. Worst of all, like all the other candidates for president, his personal level of experience with foreign policy issues is minimal, but unlike the other candidates he doesn't seem to realize this believing instead that his enthusiasm about the military and for soldiers and soldiering constitutes a close substitute for having real ideas about international relations. With McCain, it's possible that the chips will just all fall in the right place and he'll stumble upon some workable Teddy Roosevelt synthesis but we're just as likely to end up conscripting teenagers to build nuclear plants or bombing Iran or convincing ourselves that ranting and raving about the evils of earmarks is an adequate replacement for a grasp of fiscal policy.
About Giuliani, enough has already been said. Mike Huckabee is fun to talk about, but he kind of reminds me of Greg Stillson from The Dead Zone. We really don't want him in office. So that leaves Romney. Or, obviously, a Democrat.