It is fashionable among conservative pundits and GOP operatives to bemoan the state of the Republican presidential primary race. But, even without a Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) or a New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) in the race, there is still a good shot at beating President Obama — the best shot at upsetting an incumbent president, I would argue, since 1992.

Tony Fratto, a former White House staffer in the George W. Bush administration and now a consultant, told me there’s no reason to be glum. “I like to look at big macro trends, and those trends tell me (1) people aren’t happy with the direction of country, especially the economy and spending, and we’re likely not going to see much change in that sentiment over the next year; and (2) Obama has probably already lost some states he won last time and has no chance of getting them back — Virginia, Indiana, North Carolina, Nevada.”

Is it possible for a Republican, even a non-superstar candidate to win? Fratto observed that a Republican will need to find a way “to take 4 out of 5 of Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, Wisconsin, and New Mexico.” He continued, “ Is that possible? Assuming not a lot changes in the economy and a respectable Republican runs a good campaign — yes. If it’s an outlier Republican and/or one who doesn’t run a good campaign, then, No.”

As Josh Kraushaar put in the National Journal, “No president since Franklin Roosevelt has been reelected with unemployment above 8 percent. And despite Obama’s strengths — his charisma and what will likely be a well-funded campaign — winning in a down economy is hard to do.” That’s especially true if gas prices stay at $4 a gallon.

In other words, the Republicans don’t need Ronald Reagan II to beat Obama, they need a solid conservative who can unify the party. Fratto’s view — that the 2012 race will be a referendum on the president — is similar to the take of Capitol Hill Republicans and other Republican officeholders and operatives.

The superstar candidate may not come along. An aide to the, er, biggest fish — Christie — when asked to comment on the absence of a current governor in the race, said, “He’s been pretty clear he hasn’t made any decision yet about whether or not he will endorse and doesn’t have anything new to say to that.” I detect as of now no sign that Christie has changed his mind. (For example, it wouldn’t be out of the ordinary for a governor of a state with one of the largest Jewish populations to weigh in on the recent flap over Israel; Christie has been silent.)

So what about the current field? For starters, as I have said many times, ignore the polls. A Gallup poll out today showing Mitt Romney and Sarah Palin running neck-and-neck is meaningless. Palin’s not in the race, and Romney’s support, even his supporters would acknowledge, is largely the result of name ID. (Remember, Rudy Giuliani “led” the race by double digits for most of 2007.)

As for the actual candidates, Josh Kraushaar writes in the National Journal: “The reality is that the Republican field is hardly as weak as advertised, both by their own merit and by historical standards.”

I’m dubious that there is a “Jon Huntsman Republican” out there or that Romney can overcome the RomneyCare weight around his neck. Fratto sees it this way:

A friend showed me a poll in Pennsylvania that a “generic Republican” beats Obama. I said, “Now all we need is a generic Republican.” And he said, “Then it’s Pawlenty.”

Well, it does seem that absent a new contender in the race, it will come down to Romney vs. Tim Pawlenty. Fratto observes, “It does always come down to the two candidates — right now, likely Romney or Pawlenty.”

While his name ID is still below 50 percent and, consequently, Pawlenty has yet to get above single digits in early polls, I do hear more think tankers, activists and operatives in essence trying to get comfortable with the non-flashy but solid Midwestern conservative. And so far, he’s showing some nerve, yesterday in standing up for a forward-leaning foreign policy in the den of libertarian Cato and today in going to bat for Paul Ryan. His campaign sends out this excerpt from Pawlenty’s comments to the press in New Hampshire:

“First of all, I applaud Congressman Ryan for his courage and his leadership in putting his plan forward. At least he has a plan. President Obama doesn’t have a plan. The Democrats don’t have a plan. And I really applaud his leadership and his courage in putting a plan on the table. Number two, we will have our own plan; it will have many similarities to Congressman Ryan’s plan, but it will have some differences, one of which will be we’ll address Social Security. He chose not to; we are addressing Social Security. And the Medicare part of our plan will have some differences, too. It will have some similarities also. So we’ll have our own plan. But if I can’t have my own plan — as president, I’ll have my own plan [but] if I can’t have that, and the bill came to my desk and I had to choose between signing or not Congressman Ryan’s plan, of course I would sign it.”

Pawlenty has yet to draw in big donors, but if another entrant doesn’t show up fast, Pawlenty, one senses, is the non-Romney around which social and fiscal conservatives as well as hawks can rally.