With the decision by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to forgo a run for the Republican presidential nomination, two questions hold the key to the future of the GOP race: Can Mitt Romney finally expand his support within the party, and can Rick Perry bounce back?
Christie's announcement Tuesday that "now is not my time" to run for president probably ended a long period in which many Republicans spent as much time dreaming about a candidate who wasn't in the race as focusing on those who were. Only former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin remains as a possible late entry, and both time and interest in her candidacy are quickly running out.
"The campaign just got a whole lot more real," said Todd Harris, a Republican strategist. "No more hypotheticals about this or that person swooping in to save the day. The field is set, and it's not going to change. The race has been frozen in place while everyone waited to see what Christie was going to do. Now we know, and it's time to resume the clock."
The comings and goings of potential candidates have obscured what has long been the reality of the Republican race, which is that it has been two contests in one. The first was all about Romney and whether he could persuade a reluctant party to enthusiastically embrace his candidacy. So far he hasn't been able to do that. That highlights the importance of the second contest, which is the campaign among the other candidates to become the principal alternative to Romney.
The courtship of Christie spoke to a wider problem for the Republicans. At a time when they see President Barack Obama as extremely vulnerable, they are caught up in an internal debate over who is the candidate who best expresses the heart and soul of conservatism today and whether that person is best equipped to win a general election.
That has produced fluctuations in support for candidates who appear to speak for the tea party activists, starting with Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., followed by Perry and more recently by businessman Herman Cain.
Christie's decision was welcome news for both Romney and Perry. Romney will now have a fresh opportunity to consolidate support among established Republicans who have been keeping their options open. The former Massachusetts governor also will have a freer hand to go after some major fundraisers who have stayed on the sidelines looking for a seemingly more appealing candidate to come into the race.
Perry's campaign, which started quickly, has hit a rough patch. He has fallen into a tie for second place with Cain in the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll. Christie's decision offers the Texas governor a better chance to regroup and emerge as Romney's main challenger once the primaries and caucuses begin in January and the voters start to winnow the field.
Romney's challenge is evident from the new Post-ABC poll. Though Perry saw nearly half his support evaporate over the past month, none of it went to Romney. Cain's surge was built entirely on Perry's swoon. Romney's support remained steady, at about a quarter of the Republican electorate, which is hardly formidable for someone who has run before and entered the race as the nominal favorite to win.
Several Republicans said Tuesday that, given the state of the race, it would be foolish to write off Perry because of his recent problems. "Nobody has a mortal wound, that's for sure," said Ed Rogers, a GOP strategist.
Dan Balz is chief political reporter for the Washington Post.