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This year's field for the Republican presidential nomination, shown at a forum last week, is crowded but diverse.

Crowded. Messy. Out of control. Those are words you've probably heard about the Republican presidential primary field, which has lately been framed and criticized as a candidate pool so congested it's impossible to navigate. With 17 Republican wannabes having thrown their hats into the ring, "crowded" is something of an understatement, but don't let the numbers discourage you.

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Robin Smith

The overwhelming majority of these candidates share the fact they were elected statewide to serve, most as governors, others as U.S. senators. The Republican ticket includes the current governors of Wisconsin, New Jersey, Louisiana and Ohio, along with former governors of Florida, Texas, Arkansas, New York and Virginia — each well practiced in the arts of balancing budgets and collaborating with state legislatures to govern.

Five candidates also serve or have served as U.S. senators — two from electoral powerhouse states Florida and Texas and a third from a blue-collar union state, the fourth was an Air Force pilot and attorney now representing an early voting state, and the fifth is an Appalachian, libertarian-leaning ophthalmologist.

The final three candidates have never been elected but have resumes that boast strong leadership all the same. This trio features an African-American Christian conservative who retired as director of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins University Hospital; a professional woman who moved from secretary in a small real estate company to chief executive officer of Hewlett-Packard, one of the world's largest technology companies; and, of course, we can't forget the billionaire businessman who stormed onto the scene with a staunch, self-assured stance for any and every issue.

Whew.

It's a packed field, but it's a diverse one, reflecting growth in the GOP that should please even the most demographically conscious among us: female, African-American, three first-generation Americans whose heritages extend to Cuba and Punjab, India, and, yes, Caucasian-American candidates.

During the course of the campaign, each has gained his or her ground on merit — person against person, belief against belief. The GOP lineup has made no demands based on racial or gender disparity, and no rules were crafted to give an affirmative step up for one candidate over another. The same rules for everyone. Period. A competition based entirely upon personal merit.

The first formal debate was aired last week. All candidates were informed of and abided by the criteria set to access the prime-time debate stage. Messy, sure. But the rules were set, applied and served their stated purpose.

Is the Republican Party perfect? No, and we're honest enough to admit that. Are there "family" arguments and squabbles? Yes — sadly, sometimes too publicly and deeply personal. But this collection of candidates has, to date, clearly voiced their individual platforms and worked steadily to raise money and get their messages out while putting themselves willingly under the microscope for examination by millions of voters in order to be hired as our top leader. Yes, it's a packed field, but it's far from a foggy or fractured one.

As a Christian born in the greatest nation in the world who self-identifies as a Republican because I believe most of the party's policies best represent my faith and approach to life of personal responsibility and unlimited opportunity, I'm proud, along with countless others, of the diversity of genders, professions and ethnicities represented by these candidates.

Don't allow people to discourage your engagement in this primary election with condescending terms or criticisms about these candidates. The facts are on display. For those who seek diversity and merit in leadership, Republicans have it.

Robin Smith, a former chairwoman of the Tennessee Republican Party, is owner of Rivers Edge Alliance.

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