While the blogosphere and the mainstream pundits obsessed in unison–and don’t they always obsess in unison?–over the increasingly irrelevant bleatings of the Christian-right sheep at this weekend’s Values Voter Summit in Washington, more than twice as many Republicans were gathered in steamy Orlando, Florida, for their “Presidency IV” weekend. These were the people who, along with their strikingly similar counterparts in Colorado and Virginia and Missouri and Ohio, just might determine what happens in November 2008. And they are not the Republicans of 2004. The swarm of business-casual Republicans in Orlando looked like the future of their party–a future that will almost surely swing the GOP back toward the past, in the moderately conservative, business-first, ignore-the-wackos direction of Eisenhower, Rockefeller and Ford.

The crowd here was short on fundamentalists and long on nattily dressed, well-behaved, martini-sipping corporate Republicans–predominantly white ones, of course, but with more sizable black and Hispanic contingents than any other state’s Republican Party can boast (so far). It’s 1956 all over again. The “business end” of the Republican Party has been strongly on the ascent in Florida after years of embarrassing right-wing excesses from Jeb Bush and the right-wing Christian loonies who briefly took over the state legislature. These unseemly embarrassments have been shoved out of power as the relatively moderate and wildly popular Governor Charlie Crist and his cohorts have taken command, elbowing the Katharine Harrises of Florida quietly and decisively back to the margins of the GOP, where they once belonged. Left behind, if you will.

Too many Democrats are clinging to the sunny notion that they will get to run against the Party of Bush again in 2008–this time, with Bushism thoroughly discredited in the mainstream. Under that scenario, a stable, robotic, small-ball centrist like Hillary Clinton looks like a sure winner. What the sanguine Dems are ignoring is that Bushism and neoconservative ideology are also being hastily discarded by rank-and-file Republicans and their emerging leadership, especially at the state levels. Crist’s mantra is “problem-solving, not politics,” and it is a philosophy that has risen rapidly to pre-eminence here–and sounds a whole lot like Hillary’s own idea of governance. The only reference to Bush–Jeb or George W.–that I heard all weekend was from a South Florida nurse I ran into at the Black Republicans’ cocktail hour. “Oh Lord,” she said, with genuine relief, taking a swig of white wine. “Thank goodness that’s over.”

Like most of the Republicans I chatted with, what she’s looking for this year is–above all–a non-Bushian level of competence. It’s that mantle, above all, that the Republican candidates are competing for in states like Florida. And in their different ways, Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney and the vastly underrated Mike Huckabee–the only real contenders now–have some appeal to these folks on that crucial score. And judging by that same test, the big loser of the weekend was that former great white hope of “common-sense conservatism,” Ol’ Fred Thompson. His campaign has been an uproarious farce from the git-go, but this weekend in Florida, he just might have managed to shoot himself–and any chance he might have had of becoming President–in the foot, once and for all. Thompson’s strategy hinged on winning South Carolina and Florida. After this weekend, he’d better make a beeline for Charleston and stay there awhile.

While the Fox News debate on Sunday night provoked a fun but largely pointless knife-fight over who was the “real Republican” in the race–i.e., the one most closely resembling the Ronald Reagan of myth–the most telling and important moments of the weekend happened out of camera view, at Saturday afternoon’s “presidential rally.” While Huckabee was wowing ’em at the Values summit–finally capturing the constituency that should have been his from the start–the four more well-heeled candidates who’d coughed up the $100,000 fee demanded by the Florida Republicans for full participation in the weekend’s festivities held forth in a massive, high-ceilinged ballroom fitted out convention-style, with big placards for each Florida county and thousands of cheering delegates. Giuliani dazzled the crowd with a speech that was authoritative (no surprise there!) but also impressively substantive and chock-full of applause lines that were delivered with a mastery honed by hundreds of inspirational talks on the You Can Be a Millionaire speaking circuit.

While there was some grumbling about his constant references to his hometown–“I’m so sick of New York I could scream!” one woman told me afterward–he was mostly spot-on for this audience, by turns stoking their cheers and their fears. Romney, surrounded by his handsomer-than-the-Brady Bunch wife and children, pleasantly surprised the folks by telling jokes and appearing vaguely human. John McCain, just as he did during Sunday’s debate, appeared to be taking the same medications as Al Gore during his “Aren’t I Nice?” second debate with George W. Bush in 2000. But like the others, he talked a Republican brand of competence: “We lost the election in 2006 nationally because we let government get out of control.” These three all spoke at length–hell, they’d paid big for the privilege–and put their best feet, such as they are, forward for some of the nation’s most important swing-state voters.

Then it was time for Ol’ Fred, lumbering on stage with wife Jeri (decked out, as if doing penance, in a resolutely un-sexy black dress with the highest conceivable neckline) to great initial applause and enthusiastic waving of signs. He had been preceded by a peppy, slick video with the catchy but unsurprising theme of Hunt for Red November–its Hollywood glitter only making the genuine article look even more wan and slouchy than usual. Jeri, giving every indication that she couldn’t bear to see what was about to happen, fled backstage before Thompson even had a chance to recycle his already-overused line about how she’d be “a better First Lady than Bill Clinton.” It’s an odd thing to keep saying, considering that in the eyes of Republicans, Eva Braun–hell, Evita– would make a better first spouse than Bill Clinton.

But what happened next was even odder: Fred Thompson had absolutely nothing to say, and he couldn’t even say it well. Sure, everyone had heard the bad reviews; they knew that he’d already fumbled questions about Terri Schiavo (ancient history) and oil-drilling in the Everglades (uh, well, why not?) on previous forays in the Sunshine State. But they never anticipated that the man would spend $100,000 for the privilege of clearing his throat repeatedly, looking down at his shoes and mumbling a brief, disjointed account of his résumé (he read Conscience of a Conservative, started a Young Republican group in his Tennessee hometown, went to the Senate and voted prolife, and, well, here he is). Where the others had held forth for nearly a half-hour each, Thompson petered out in just four minutes, completing the fiasco with a closing line that set a new standard for meaninglessness in political rhetoric (quite a standard indeed). “Together,” he muttered in his monotone, “we can do something good for America.” What that “something” might be remained as profound a mystery as why the man is bestirring himself to run for President.

As the Florida Republicans stared, gape-mouthed, at one another, Thompson turned on his heel and slumped backstage, until a campaign aide reminded him that he was supposed to have moved out into the crowd to shake hands–at which point he appeared again, head down, grim-faced, as though he were facing an execution, and came out to grasp the hands of his shell-shocked supporters.

In the hallway afterward, as folks milled around and critiqued the performances, most of the talk was either of Giuliani–“I never knew!”–or Ol’ Fred. I fell in with a gaggle of senior citizens, all wearing Thompson’s fittingly subdued campaign stickers (glum purple with old-gold lettering). “I can’t believe Thompson,” said Sandra Nicholson of Hernando County. “I mean, he’s here–why doesn’t he have anything to say?”

“Why’d he even bother coming?” one of her friends asked. “Thompson said nothing. Giuliani gave us meat.”

“We came wanting to support Fred,” said Nicholson, who now leans toward Giuliani. “But he just didn’t express anything. It really shocked me. It shocked me.”

By the end of the weekend, there was a real question who was the most loathed figure among Florida Republicans: Hillary Clinton or Fred Thompson. With the leading Republicans having little or nothing of a positive nature to run on, Hillary is fast becoming this year’s wedge issue–the 2008 answer to gay marriage. (Could constitutional amendments to ban her be far behind?) But nothing could match their disgust and dismay over Thompson. For this crowd, the most offensive thing was not just that he’d stunk up the place but that, as my companion on the shuttle bus after the Sunday debate said, “The man just pissed away $100,000!”

The other stunner of the weekend, both in Washington and Florida at Sunday’s debate, was the sterling performance of Mike Huckabee. One of the great mysteries of this campaign has been the reluctance of Christian-right leaders to support the Arkansas governor. While they have pointed to his lack of “viability”–read: money–as the reason, the real source of religious-right discomfort with the whip-smart, witty Baptist preacher unquestionably lies with Huckabee’s economic populism. He is a down-the-line social conservative, to the extremity of advocating for the repeal of “no-fault” divorce. But Huckabee’s governance in Arkansas has borne scant resemblance to the corporate flackery of his fellow Christian-right heavyweights–the man raised taxes, for goodness’ sake, and just won’t stop talking about uplifting the working class and bringing minorities into the party. At times, he even sounds–heaven forbid!–pro-labor. All of which matches him up, almost to a T, with the clear majority of not only Republican but also independent and conservative Democratic voters in the South and Midwest. These folks, black and white, tend to be social conservatives and economic populists. Huckabee is the first candidate in a long time who embodies that particular alchemy. He is also, far and away, the freshest and most appealing talent in the race–on either side. He is the one Republican who would be an absolute cinch to win the general election against any of the three leading Democrats. But he remains a long shot–unless Iowa Republicans give him a slingshot.

Even so, the message from Orlando is that the Republicans–even with Giuliani or Romney bearing the standard–are likely to be a lot more formidable than Democrats want to believe. It’s true enough that the country has learned a bitter lesson from the Bush years. The great shock of 2008 might be that a fair number of Republicans have learned some lessons, too. A middle-of-the-road Democrat could end up sounding less like a choice than an echo to voters, especially in key states like Florida.