Three wheels left on red wagon after Palin and Christie pull out of the race

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The decisions by Sarah Palin and the New Jersey governor, Chris Christie, to sit out the 2012 presidential race left Republicans yesterday with a choice between two, or possibly three, standard-bearers: Mitt Romney, Rick Perry, and the suddenly surging outsider, the businessman Herman Cain.

A CBS poll this week had Mr Cain in first place with Mr Romney, ahead of Mr Perry, the Texas governor, whose campaign has hit a rough patch after a series of stumbles. The three front-runners were followed by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, the Kentucky Congressman Ron Paul and Michele Bachmann, the Tea Party favourite, whose rating has fallen to 4 per cent after her successes in the summer.

The rise of Mr Cain is the latest sign of the restless mood of a party still unable to take Mr Romney to its heart and worried that Mr Perry may not be prepared for the rigours of a protracted campaign. "Cain basically is the 'none-of-the-above' candidate," one party strategist said.

Nowhere is the uncertainty greater than among conservative Tea Party activists, who first rallied to Ms Bachmann, then to Mr Perry, and who would probably have flocked to Ms Palin had she taken the plunge. Now they are taking a close look now at Mr Cain. "He's a straight talker, with business experience and a lot of momentum, and is one to watch," said Amy Kremer, a leading Tea Party spokeswoman. But she added: We are not endorsing any candidate at this point."

However, the candidates with the money, support networks and widest national reach are still Mr Perry and Mr Romney. After his recent troubles, stoked by controversy over his stand on immigration and a dismal showing in the latest candidates' debate, Mr Perry received a much-needed boost yesterday with figures showing he had raised $17m (£11m) of funds in the third quarter, outstripping his rivals. Mr Romney was expected to have raised at most $13m over the same period.

If Mr Perry stands to benefit from Ms Palin's opt-out, the absence of Mr Christie should help Mr Romney. The latter now has no obvious rival for the favours of the traditional Republican east-coast establishment.