WEST DES MOINES, IOWA - A group of Republican activists was sorting out the field of prospective 2012 presidential candidates on a cold night here recently when talk turned to Sarah Palin. In a state whose caucuses will kick off the nomination contest, no one stands clearly above the others, suggesting the competition here is as wide open as it is nationally.

But what these voters said about Palin might give the former Alaska governor pause as she considers whether to run for the White House next year. Christi Taylor, a physician, put it this way:

"As a woman, and from one strong woman to another, I want to like her and want to support her desperately. And yet, you just can't quite do it. I think she's a great inspirational person. I think she rallies the troops. I don't think she has what it takes to actually lead our country into a better economic future . . . And that pains me, because I want a strong woman candidate, and she is a strong woman candidate. But she's not the right strong woman candidate."

To better gauge the early impressions of the Republican field, the Post asked party chairs in two Iowa counties - suburban Dallas County, outside Des Moines, and rural Crawford County, about two hours to the northwest - to assemble local activists to share their views of the candidates. The groups, totaling 21 people, met on consecutive nights.

Economic concerns dominate the agenda for these activists. E.J. Infanger, who is self-employed, has two small children and worries about the impact of the debt and deficits on their lives. "I am deathly scared of the country that they're going to inherit," he said. "There are cultural issues I care deeply about, but the biggest thing is the debt."

The activists want a nominee who can deal with these fiscal and economic issues and who has the leadership skills to rally the country. "I want a candidate who can take basic conservative principles and sell them to the American people as common sense, because that's what they are," said Roger Sailer, a lawyer.

The two groups do not constitute a true representative sample of likely caucus attendees. But because Iowa activists pay attention to presidential campaigns more closely and earlier than voters in most other states, and because some prospective candidates are now making regular trips to Iowa, their comments provided valuable insight into the shape of the GOP field.

Right now, there is great uncertainty about who meets the qualifications Iowa activists are looking for. But while some strategists in the key state do not discount Palin's potential appeal, given her celebrity status and the passions she evokes, she may have to overcome doubts that some other candidates don't now face.

Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad (R), who has not endorsed anyone, said that former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee is "probably" the front-runner in Iowa, "based on the fact that he carried the state" in 2008. But he said there's been little sign of Huckabee so far and noted that he has "not been a great fundraiser."

In the two groups assembled by the Post, Huckabee is still well liked. He was described as "jovial" and "down to earth," a good communicator with a sense of humor. "Whether you agree or disagree with what he has to say, he always has that feel that he's one of you," said Tyler DeHaan, who works in the investment business.

Almost every person in the suburban Des Moines group offered positive words for Huckabee until Becky Ervin, who works in human resources, said, "I love the guy, but he's not tough enough." That prompted some revisionism around the room.

One person question his toughness to handle national security issues and called him "a pleaser." Another cited his record of allowing the release of convicted felons in Arkansas. Another questioned whether he can expand beyond his Christian conservative base to become a competitive candidate in a general election.

Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, who finished second in Iowa in 2008, has many of the attributes that people said they were looking for.

"He has a strong business background and right now we need somebody who can look at the economy and decide what the heck to do with it," said Nancy Bielenberg, a registered nurse.

"He knows how to turn things around," said Jacob Chapman, director of operations for a private ambulance company.

But the mention of Romney's name also prompted numerous negative comments that added up to a significant lack of trust in him personally. He was described as "a used-car salesman," an "elitist," "arrogant" and a "flip-flopper."

Many pointed to the Massachusetts health care plan he signed into law as governor as a major problem. "I could support him, but he needs to go beyond the argument that it was good for Massachusetts," said Darin Johnson, a fourth-grade teacher. "I think he needs to apologize and he needs to say it was a big mistake and I've learned from it."

Newt Gingrich, who has been working hard in Iowa, drew many favorable comments. "He is the brightest political figure I've ever met in my life," said Ed Brown, CEO of the Iowa Clinic. Others saw Gingrich positively as someone who knows his way around power.

But his two divorces troubled others. One person called him "unelectable." Another said he was "not honest." A third said he was so polarizing that he "can't win the middle."

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour drew different reactions in the two groups. Several of the activists in rural Crawford County described him as a charismatic, common-sense, mainstream conservative. One person said he would be as comfortable with Barbour in his living room as in the Oval Office.

"At this early point he's the one in the field a lot of us feel is presidential," said Arlan Ecklund, a sales representative.

But in West Des Moines, the interest in Barbour was tempered by questions of whether a southerner would play well in Iowa and elsewhere in the North. They also questioned whether he could attract young voters, whose support was crucial to Obama in 2008.

Former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty was seen as someone with leadership potential. His Midwestern roots prompted one person to say, "He's one of us." Another described him as "your next-door neighbor."

Dwayne Vande Krol, a lawyer, said Pawlenty should do well in Iowa's one-on-one campaign environment but added, "Whether he can take that outside of Iowa and the Midwest is yet to be seen."

Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum has left mixed impressions in visits to Iowa. Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels evokes interest among those who know his record, but is not well known. South Dakota Sen. John Thune, though from a neighboring state, also has not left a strong impression.

The activists' comments suggested that Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, a tea party favorite, could vie with Palin for attention. "What I think would really be interesting is to see Palin and Bachmann go head to head in Iowa," Branstad said.

Palin has a reservoir of goodwill but must overcome real obstacles. Georgia Vincent, an office manager, admires Palin but doesn't see her as presidential. "I have tremendous respect for her but I don't think that the presidency is where her talents could be best used," she said.

Adam Freed, an attorney, said he too has great respect for Palin. "But I think resigning from the governorship was a huge mistake," he said. "Being president is going to be tough at times and people are going to attack you. If her reaction is to resign in that situation I have a very difficult time putting that level of trust in her."

Gwen Ecklund, the Crawford County GOP chair, said she believes Palin has been treated unfairly by the media but also "shoots off her mouth" in ways that cause problems. Nancy Bliesman, a housewife, said, "I just don't see her even getting close" to winning the White House.

In West Des Moines, the comments about Palin surprised even some of the participants. Christi Taylor's husband, Dallas County GOP chairman Rob Taylor, praised her, saying, "She really brought the movement back into the Republican Party, so kudos to her for doing that." Still, he believes she needs more experience.

Phil Tuning drew a big laugh when he described her as "combative, competitive, opportunistic."

After Christi Taylor expressed her views, Michele Brown, a community volunteer, offered an even more surprising assessment. "I think a lot of women really wanted her to be someone special," she said. "I think as time has passed that she's just not a presidential candidate right now. Now maybe in time she will be, but she's got some grooming to do. I'd rather see Hillary Clinton."

The room erupted, but Christi Taylor seconded Brown's comment. Neither she nor Brown said they agreed with Clinton on the issues, but they said she had the requisite qualifications to be president - experience, depth and intelligence.

Ervin came to Palin's defense. "You're kicking that girl when she's down," she protested. Ervin went on to say that she would rather have Palin in the White House than Obama, but that she doubts Palin could win. "It makes me mad that she can't or won't be president because there's no way she's going to get elected," she said. "I know that and it's really sad."

That is the challenge ahead for Palin, if she becomes a candidate.