The decisions by Sarah Palin and Chris Christie to sit out the 2012 presidential race left Republicans yesterday mulling whether to support either of the frontrunners, Mitt Romney and Rick Perry, or to switch their votes to the businessman and commentator Herman Cain.
A CBS poll this week confirmed Mr Cain was in a tie for first place with Mr Romney, ahead of Mr Perry, the Texas governor, whose campaign has stumbled. They were followed by the former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, the Kentucky Congressman Ron Paul and Michele Bachmann, of the Tea Party, who is backed by only 4 per cent of Republicans. 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 the campaign trail, its supporters say.
"Cain basically is the 'none-of-the-above' candidate," one party strategist said. The large proportion of those unstill decided – 18 percent, according to the CBS poll – makes a similar point.
Nowhere is that uncertainty greater than among ultra-conservative Tea Party activists, who rallied behind Ms Bachmann, then Mr Perry, and who would probably have flocked to Ms Palin had she taken the plunge.
Now they are taking a closer look at Mr Cain.
"He's a straight talker, with business experience, and has a lot of momentum and is one to watch," said Amy Kremer, a Tea Party spokeswoman. But she stressed that the field was very volatile and said that the party was "not endorsing any candidate at this point".
However, Mr Perry and Mr Romney remain the candidates with the most money, best support networks and widest national reach.
After his recent troubles, stoked by controversy over his stand on immigration and a dismal showing in the most recent debate between candidates, Mr Perry yesterday received a much-needed boost, with figures emerging that showed he had raised $17m of funds in the third quarter, outstripping his rivals. Mr Romney was expected to collect at most $13m over the same period.
If Mr Perry stands to benefit from the fact that Ms Palin has not thrown her hat into the ring, the absence of Mr Christie, the New Jersey governor, from the race should help Mr Romney.
The latter now has no obvious rival for the favours of the traditional Republican east coast establishment, a reduced, but still important, constituency within the party. As pressure on Mr Christie to run grew last month, many top Republican donors, especially those on Wall Street, refused to commit themselves. But with the New Jersey governor definitely out of the race, they are expected to back Mr Romney, boosting his efforts to raise campaign funds.
But time is running short. Following Florida's decision to move up its primary to January 31, the four states that always go first – Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada –are also expected to move their votes forward. The Iowa caucuses that kick off the primaries could be held as early as 2 January, less than three months away, or even in late December.
That also puts a premium on organisation, which should favour Mr Romney as he has been preparing for 2012 from the moment he lost the 2008 nomination battle to John McCain.
11 September, 2010 "Evidently, I'm supposed to make a big announcement here, Glenn and I together, make some big announcement, maybe about the 2012 election or something." Addressing a rally with conservative firebrand Glenn Beck
12 January, 2011 "Within hours of a tragedy unfolding, journalists and pundits should not manufacture a blood libel that serves only to incite the very hatred and violence that they purport to condemn. That is reprehensible." Palin responds in a damaging row over whether confrontational politics contributed to the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords
3 September, 2011 "Polls? Nah... They're for strippers and cross-country skiers," she said as the latest surveys showed her lagging well behind the leading candidates in the race for the Republican nomination
5 October, 2011 "As always, my family comes first and obviously Todd and I put great consideration into family life before making this decision. When we serve, we devote ourselves to god, family and country. My decision maintains this order."