The New Jersey governor's decision signals an end to the silly and embarrassing series of attempts to recruit a new GOP dreamboat
The Chris Christie boomlet is over. Now, let's get down to business and have a campaign.
There are just three months to go before the first primaries of 2012. It's time, Republicans say, to end the Groundhog Day-like cycle of potential candidate flirtations that's been a constant sideshow to the primary thus far.
For practical reasons, for strategic reasons and for appearances' sake, the GOP is ruefully acknowledging that there will be no more entrants to the presidential primary.
"If Christie is out, the train has left the station and anyone who could be aboard will be aboard," said Mark McKinnon, a former campaign adviser to George W. Bush and John McCain. "Most of the people who were excited about the prospect of a Christie candidacy will find another candidate, though they won't be excited about it."
It's no secret why the cycle kept repeating. Neither the GOP establishment nor the activist grassroots has fallen in deep and lasting love with any of the current candidates, so they keep looking elsewhere. But now, there are hard realities bringing the party's choices into focus.
On the practical side, filing deadlines are fast approaching for the first primaries and caucuses, and you can't win an election if you're not on the ballot. The primaries themselves have crept up the calendar since Florida's decision last week to hold its contest on Jan. 31. Most now expect the Iowa caucuses to happen right after New Year's, on Jan. 2 or 3.
"With the new calendar, there is no time for anyone to get in short of a billionaire," said Republican consultant Mary Matalin. GOP voters, she added, "are going to have to accept the reality that good doesn't mean perfect. It's always a leap of faith."
There are also the more nebulous, but no less necessary, strategic steps needed to mount a campaign: fundraising, staffing and organization.
"It's very difficult at this stage to pull a national campaign together," said former Connecticut GOP Chairman Chris Healy, who is supporting Rick Perry. "Your margin of error, your ability to fundraise and recruit, it's all more of a challenge."
Healy said Perry's relatively late entry -- he announced his campaign in mid-August -- has created obstacles for the Texas governor's campaign. "I'll admit that even for Governor Perry, his missteps have been amplified and exacerbated because of the schedule," Healy said. "You have less of an ability to move on" -- from a damaging revelation or a weak debate performance, for example -- "and let those missteps fade away into the past."
And then there's the question of how this all looks to the voting public. The more top GOP figures voice their displeasure with their choices, the more the idea permeates public opinion that the Republican candidates challenging President Obama are no prize. It's unseemly and a bit embarrassing to be constantly chasing other prospects while an array of distinguished politicians, all of whom have said they would like nothing better than to be the nominee, stand there on the debate stage like chopped liver.
"With the exception of Sarah Palin, I think we are now beyond new candidates entering and I don't see Palin running either," said RedState founder Erick Erickson. "Republicans are never happy with their field of candidates and will still make do with what they have. That's the nature of politics."
Of course, they've all said this before. After Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels declined to run, for example, top GOP insiders told Politico the field was set and there would be no "last-minute entry."
That was in May.
That was also several will-he-or-won't-he cycles ago, with several other candidates courted since. Alone among them, Perry succumbed to the party's pleas. He soared to the top of the polls immediately, only to have GOP voters turn against him after they got know him better, bursting the bubble. The question now is whether the Texan can regain his footing and his co-front-runner status, or whether some other candidate, such as businessman Herman Cain, will rise as the right's top alternative to Mitt Romney.
There are still murmurs about more candidates. There's Palin, whose grassroots following is small but intensely devoted, and who has refused to make a definitive statement despite the passage of her self-imposed soft deadline of late September. There are rumblings about people changing Mike Huckabee's mind, or Paul Ryan's.
But these sorts of mini-groundswells have come to seem increasingly silly. Even the Christie surge was pretty silly when you think about it. It came and went in only a week. It was powered by a cabal of super-wealthy donors and an East Coast-centric media. Christie's stances on a host of issues, such as immigration and climate change, would have quickly disabused the conservative base of its affection for his tough-talking style.
As Erickson put it, "I never really knew who was so anxious for Christie to run beyond Bill Kristol and various op-ed pages in D.C. and New York."
Florida-based GOP consultant Rick Wilson said the Christie frenzy was driven by "the guys across the river" -- that is, "Wall Street types who see him on the nightly news, Manhattan movers and shakers. There's also the unspoken smart-set Brooksian love for Christie that is pretty evident. Great guy, but these people have an Acela corridor bias."
The question now is what those folks decide to do. Coalesce around one of the current candidates? Wait out the primary? Matalin said the best course now is for GOP elites to push the candidates to step up their game.
"The media has been right on who was pushing Christie: [those who were] never comfortable with Romney; worried about Perry; can't see any path for the rest of the field, though might take a second look at Cain if he can keep up his game and can get some mainstream validation," she said in an email.
"They will have to pick one and leverage their donor strength by pushing whomever they choose to rectify their weaknesses, including politically and personally. ... They might threaten to stay out, but that would be political suicide; they know the country can't handle four more years of this."
Image credit: Reuters: Jonathan Ernst