The season of fantasy politics has almost come to an end. The already-long campaign among Republican hopefuls will shortly hit a point of no return, or more accurately, a point of no entry. New Hampshire, Michigan, and Florida all require primary candidates in presidential races to have declared by the end of October — and that means we will shortly have to quit speculating about who might get in the race and start thinking about who will come out with the nomination.
On Tuesday, Chris Christie resisted the siren call of Republican donors and activists trying to add yet another podium to debate stages. The governor of New Jersey might be the first figure in national political history to call a much-anticipated press conference to announce a non-candidacy, as his first hundred or so denials of interest in running apparently didn't convince enough people.
Why were Republicans so intrigued by Christie? He's not a terribly conservative Republican, with heterodox opinions on hot-button issues like climate change, immigration, and especially gun control. As a Northeastern governor, Christie would have competed more with Mitt Romney than with more base-friendly candidates like Herman Cain and Rick Santorum. Even Rick Perry, who has come under fire from the conservative wing of the GOP during this campaign, looks more reliable than Christie on those core issues.
We will shortly have to quit speculating about who might get in the race and start thinking about who will come out with the nomination.
So why all of the attention on Christie? Will Cain gets it right:
"Christie is... or seems... authentic. And it's not just because he beats down teachers' union mouthpieces or radio callers or hecklers with a straight talk that leaves me smiling... It's also because Christie is fat. His weight enhances his authenticity. He's literally and figuratively, putting it all out there."
Authenticity always sells — before a candidate gets in the race. Just as with Perry, whose entry generated a huge amount of excitement because of his record on jobs and on fighting Washington's encroachment on state jurisdictions. But after you're in, everything gets tested, and authenticity probably wouldn't have sufficed once Christie's views on gun control got broached in a Republican debate. Just ask... Rick Perry, regarding immigration, Gardasil, and debating technique.
Can anyone else get into the race at this point? It seems very unlikely. The only potential candidate with enough name recognition and any semblance of a national organization would be Sarah Palin, and she has spoken recently of a campaign being too "shackling" for real activism. Palin hasn't ruled it out, but the longer she waits, the less time she has to build a campaign organization that can deliver a state like Iowa, New Hampshire, or South Carolina.
At the moment, it looks as though Republicans will have to go with the field they have. That means the race to the top of the ticket will likely be fought between Romney, Perry, and the improbable long shot Herman Cain. Michele Bachmann has faded into the statistical-noise level of the polling, only besting other also-rans like Rick Santorum and Jon Huntsman by a couple of percentage points. Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul have stronger followings, but neither has given much indication of stretching their attraction beyond their loyal fans. Even absent Palin or Christie, none of these candidates have gained traction despite months on the campaign trail.
Cain caught lightning in a bottle this past week, and he will gain the most from having the window close on new entries. As Perry gets hammered on immigration, Tea Party support seems to have shifted in Cain's direction, and he now leads or ties Perry in state and national polls. However, Cain's fundraising hasn't been strong; he finished Q2 with less than a half-million dollars in the bank, and his recent boost has only covered less than the last two weeks. Moreover, Cain will go on a book tour that will take him out of the key primary states for at least a couple of weeks, which won't help his fundraising in Q4. It may not be as curious a strategic decision as Gingrich's two-week international cruise in May, but it will distract voters from Cain just as he's building some needed momentum.
Romney has been slow and steady, and has the campaign experience that his competitors lack. If Romney hasn't won all of the debates thus far, he's come close to doing so, and hasn't damaged himself at all. He has given Republicans a reason to feel confident that Romney could match up well against Obama in presidential debates.
That said, Romney has another big problem. According to the Boston Globe, Romney — who has never had a problem raising money — saw his donations drop off in the third quarter, perhaps down to $11 million — a drop-off of one-third since Q2. It's an unusual sign of weakness, but it might reflect a pause from some previous donors who went shopping for a Christie candidacy over the last couple of months. Romney doesn't have a passionate following in the Republican Party, so he has to appear invulnerable to keep his frontrunner status.
That leaves us with Perry. It's true that Perry had a tough couple of weeks in September, and that poor debate performances damaged his standing in the polls. However, it didn't damage his ability to raise money. According to a source in the campaign, Perry will announce that he raised $17 million — in a period of just seven weeks. In fact, his fundraising actually increased after his poor performance in the Orlando debate, going from $323,000 per day prior to the debate to $478,000 per day in the eight days following it. Perry has a big campaign war chest and can make an argument that he can out-raise and outfight Obama better than the other GOP candidates. The Washington Post hit piece that came out over the weekend might get conservatives rallying around Perry, too, perhaps restoring some of his lost momentum.
If the campaign comes down to a Romney and not-Romney, Perry's still better positioned to take that latter position. And if Perry can improve his debate performances and get back to talking about himself more than Romney, he could still walk off with this nomination.