Now that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has announced he will not seek the 2012 GOP presidential nomination, all of the Republican donors, elected officials, and party activists pining for a savior to jump into the race must face the reality that the field is set. They need to channel Stephen Stills: "If you can't be with the one you love, love the one you're with."
No doubt the fundraisers for Mitt Romney and Rick Perry are tying up the phone lines into New York's financial district, wooing donors who had either been holding out for Christie or had used him as an excuse to remain on the sidelines.
Both the Perry and Romney camps can argue that the Republicans who would have supported Christie will now gravitate toward their candidate. Perry backers can point to Christie's brash, in-your-face style and say that the Texan is more temperamentally and stylistically similar. In that sense, it's true, Romney and Christie could hardly be more different. But ideologically, Romney might actually be a closer match. It's hard to imagine Perry mimicking Christie's support for the ban on assault rifles and current gun laws or saying, as Christie did when he was running for governor, that he is anti-abortion, but would not "force that down people's throats." The truth may well be that social and cultural issues aren't particularly important to either Christie or Romney.
In the end, it's a good bet that neither Romney nor Perry will inherit an appreciable number of supporters; it's the donors who wanted Christie who are now in play. With the fourth quarter just getting started, it will take a while to ascertain who wins the donor primary.
Clearly, most Republican voters would much prefer a very, very, very conservative nominee to the more buttoned-down Romney. (Even if he has shed his pinstriped suits and nice ties in favor of sports shirts and khakis, he still looks like he could be a Haggar slacks model.) It's unclear whether they want, or will end up supporting, Perry-but, obviously, they want a Perry-like conservative. But it comes down to Perry's capacity to turn the corner, to become a national, as opposed to a Texas or a Deep South, candidate.
Perry has shown a proclivity to step on his own body parts and will undoubtedly do so again. The question is whether he learns from his mistakes. If he does, he will be the GOP nominee and stands a fair chance of beating President Obama, given the horrific economy and the public's loss of confidence in the president. If he doesn't and isn't more careful about what he says and how he says it, Perry will either lose the nomination, or he will win it and then lose a general election that's there for the taking. Simple as that.
No one knows yet whether the controversy unleashed by The Washington Post report about a racially offensive name painted on a rock on land leased by Perry's family has damaged his political prospects. Whatever Democrats and liberals think is irrelevant. Outside of New Hampshire and a few other states where independents can vote in Republican primaries, independents' view of this controversy is also irrelevant in terms of the nomination. For now, what's important is how conservatives and Republicans react to the story.
Maybe enough ambiguity surrounds when the word "Niggerhead" was painted over and when the rock was turned over that Perry can survive. (Too bad there are no Google Earth photos to settle this.) History teaches that it pays to be cautious before rushing to judgment about whether a controversy kills someone's chances of capturing a party nomination (see Flowers, Gennifer; or Wright, Rev. Jeremiah). One factor is whether other shoes will drop that establish a pattern in Republican voters' minds and reinforce doubts about Perry-or whether the story fades, pushed out of the news by Christie's announcement, stock-market gyrations, Italian court rulings, and the dozens of other stories each day.
The Herman Cain boomlet is a puzzler. By traditional yardsticks of measuring a presidential candidate's potential success, he falls short. For hard-charging conservatives who have become disillusioned with Newt Gingrich, Michele Bachmann, and now Perry, and who have resisted the appeal of Ron Paul and Rick Santorum, Cain may be the new flavor of the month. But without the apparatus, money, or expertise in actually winning a party's nomination, it's doubtful that he can go very far. The current flurry won't keep the titans of business and finance on the sidelines; their skepticism will likely mirror that of the political pros and pundits.
The most likely scenario is for the battle lines to firm up and the remaining nonaligned donors, elected officials, and activists to choose sides.