WASHINGTON (Reuters) - After months of turmoil and uncertainty, the Republican 2012 presidential race finally appears to have a settled field of candidates — with Mitt Romney solidifying his perch at the top of the pack.
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s decision not to seek the presidency ends the “will-he-or-won’t-he” phase of the campaign, when a parade of Republicans rejected pleas to run from party insiders unhappy with the field.
Three months before the first votes are likely to be cast, it also solidified Romney’s role as the reconstituted front-runner and eliminated a potential threat to his hold on the party’s pragmatic, moderate wing.
Christie would have crowded Romney’s middle-of-the-road path to the nomination, which the former Massachusetts governor has had to himself while a half-dozen rivals carved each other up for the allegiance of social and religious conservatives.
“Christie would have been a real threat to Romney,” said Republican strategist Todd Harris. “He would have had the potential to steal Romney’s base and at the same time consolidate the anti-Romney vote.”
Christie’s decision eliminates the last realistic contender who might still get in the presidential race other than 2008 vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, who few believe will launch a White House bid.
Palin has not ruled out a presidential run but has made no public effort to get ready for a campaign less than a month before the first key state filing deadlines.
“The reality is the field is set. The campaigns that are in the race have been operating as such, and anyone out there who is still thinking about running is delusional,” said Republican strategist Jim Dyke.
“To raise the money, put together the organization and sustain the aggressive inspection of one’s policy positions over the years ... you have to be delusional to think you could pull it off in a few months,” he said.
Unhappy with their choices, some Republican activists have been seeking a savior for months. Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, among others, also decided against challenging President Barack Obama in 2012.
“Now we can move from soap opera to classroom,” Dyke said. “We can get back to focusing on the economy and the Republican vision for that, rather than the idea that somebody will come in on a flying carpet and lead us to victory.”
Romney, the former Massachusetts governor and the early front-runner, had seen his lead evaporate after Texas Governor Rick Perry entered the race in August.
But Perry has struggled, and Romney has moved back into the poll lead despite continued conservative doubts about the depth of his views and his backing of a state healthcare plan that was a precursor to Obama’s national healthcare reform legislation.
Christie is also a moderate governor from the Northeast with establishment backing and a potentially strong donor network, although he has less experience on the national stage than Romney, who ran unsuccessfully for the White House in 2008.
Kevin Madden, a Romney aide in 2008 who is serving as an informal adviser in 2012, said Romney would not have needed to change strategy if Christie had run.
“The campaign was built to accommodate any challengers. You recognize it’s going to be competitive no matter who gets in,” Madden said. “I would disagree that this is a big plus for Romney.”
In making his decision, Christie might have been guided by the failures of other candidates with strong credentials who came late to a presidential race — Democrat Wesley Clark in 2004, Republican Fred Thompson in 2008 and Perry this year.
After quick starts, Clark and Thompson fell flat and Perry has struggled.
“This idea that it’s easy to run for president — Rick Perry is showing that it’s a lot harder than it looks,” said Fergus Cullen, former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party.
Editing by Philip Barbara