MANCHESTER, N.H. >> Roy Barbuto is on the hunt. For the past few months, he has been searching for the perfect Republican candidate, and he shows no signs of flagging.
Barbuto, 61, a service technician here, had already seen Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota ("She was excellent"), the former pizza executive Herman Cain ("He intrigues me, because here is a man who clearly knows what to do businesswise"), and the former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney ("If he was elected, he could certainly do the job"). Now, he was finishing up dinner at a house party in Chichester, N.H., waiting to take a measure of Gov. Rick Perry of Texas.
"I’m not just looking for a candidate to beat the president," he explained. "For me, the purpose of the next president is to restore the pride that this country has always had."
In interviews with more than two dozen people in New Hampshire and Iowa over Labor Day weekend, Republicans sensed a new vulnerability to President Barack Obama. But while they expressed a strong sense of optimism in the prospect of winning the White House, they were looking for a candidate who could not only prevail in a general election, but be a forceful conservative leader for a tumultuous time.
"I’d like somebody who is really conservative, but can they beat Obama?" asked Earl Rinker, 76, of Manchester, as he waited for a Perry event to begin. "I do think that because of the nature of the economy and what’s going on, a more conservative candidate may still well be electable."
With an important Republican debate looming this Wednesday, what is apparent among those who have followed the early stages of the primary campaign closely is the strong level of energy and enthusiasm about the Republican candidates and of voters’ dismay at the direction of the country.
"With everything that’s gone wrong so far in this country, it sure gives a Republican a better shot at getting this fellow out of office," said Hank Marion, 69, a retired independent from Manchester. "I’m looking for someone who can create jobs."
Again and again, Republicans said they were looking for a candidate with strong leadership skills, someone who could speak up and restore the nation’s standing in the world –B a clear contrast to Obama, whom they perceive as being weak and ineffectual.
"We have a leader right now who isn’t really a leader," said Fred Bestwick, 66, a retired federal government employee who lives in Chichester and had just watched Perry speak at a house party. "I don’t want our Republican candidate to be someone weak. I like Perry because he doesn’t seem to take any guff, and that’s important to me."
For all the consternation among some party leaders about the strength of the field of candidates, the conversations with Republicans and independent voters revealed a sense of satisfaction at their array of choices. The interviews reflected a marked shift in the mood from only months ago, when many Republicans were openly skeptical that Obama could be defeated.
"Obama is pretty much beating himself," said Charles Whitney, 65, a truck driver from Des Moines. "Don’t you think anybody can beat him?"
Republicans’ belief that they have a real shot at winning the White House has made many of them more receptive to a principled conservative as their nominee — "The more conservative, the better," said Jerry Benuck, a semi-retired Web developer who lives in Bedford, N.H. — but the push to the right is also tempered by a desire to settle on a candidate who can unseat the current president.
But several voters said that the candidates have spent too much time criticizing the president, rather than outlining their own visions.
"The sentiment against Obama gives the Republicans a lot of fuel, but they need to come forth with concrete proposals and not just attack the current administration," said G.P. Foote, 68, who works in a campus ministry in Ames, Iowa, and has seen several of the candidates.
A government report Friday that showed zero net job creation in August, coupled with an already fragile economy, has pushed jobs and fiscal concerns to the forefront of the minds of most voters interviewed.
"I’m looking for an economic fix," said Don St. Germain, 49, the executive vice president of St. Mary’s Bank, who lives in Wolfeboro, N.H. "To me, it’s about getting the economy back on track and getting some jobs created, and that’s why Romney has some appeal. He’s done that."
His ideal candidate, he added, was "Romney with a little more pizzazz."
Last week, Obama faced yet another setback, when he and Speaker John A. Boehner quibbled over the date when Obama could deliver his jobs address to a joint session of Congress. The president eventually capitulated, and the episode only highlighted the president’s weakened political state.
"We need to get back the respect that this country deserves around the world," said Maureen Gauthier, 54, a retired civil servant in Manchester. "I think we need to certainly turn things around economically, and I’m looking for someone who isn’t afraid to say it like it is. I’m done with political correctness."
Bonnie Duarte, 56, a registered nurse at the Veteran’s Administration hospital in Manchester, said that "job growth right now, the economy" are the issues that are most important to her. But she echoed the sentiment that the Republican nominee should be a bold leader.
"I’m also looking for a candidate who is not afraid to speak up and say, ‘I’m a total conservative. This is what I believe in and if you don’t like it, too bad,"’ she said.
Duarte, who is married to state Rep. Joe Duarte, said her ideal candidate would be "a mixture of Perry, Romney, Bachmann, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul."