Republicans look to reluctant governor to salvage White House bid

The GOP believes it has a golden opportunity to defeat an unpopular Barack Obama, but Republicans cannot take frontrunner Mitt Romney to their hearts

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The Independent US

The setting was that temple of modern Republicanism, the Ronald Reagan presidential library in Simi, California. The topic of his speech was that inspirational theme of "American exceptionalism". What better moment to announce he was entering the 2012 White House field? Except that even now, Chris Christie wasn't saying.

For the best part of a year, there has been speculation that the first-term governor of New Jersey – blunt, combative, funny, and dripping in everyman appeal – would make an effective challenger to President Obama. But in recent weeks the clamour has become deafening, from party strategists, conservative commentators and grass roots activists dissatisfied with the existing crop of Republican candidates.

"We need you, your country needs you," one questioner implored moments after Mr Christie had finished his prepared remarks on Tuesday evening. That was "extraordinarily flattering", the governor replied, but it was not per se a reason to run. "The reason has to reside inside me, and that's what I've said all along."

But those words did not add up to another explicit denial to add to the dozens he has issued over the past few months, and even if he is not a candidate, Mr Christie most certainly sounded like one. Yesterday, his advisers let it be known that he was still considering his position. For the faithful that was encouragement enough. Others though – and not least his brother – remain convinced that however much he is relishing the attention, in the end he will decide to stay out. "I'm sure he's not going to run," Todd Christie told New Jersey's largest newspaper, Newark's The Star-Ledger.

Whether or not he eventually takes the plunge, the furore over Mr Christie speaks volumes about the curious state of the Republican contest, little more than a year before a presidential election in which the party now believes it has a golden chance of defeating a weakened and increasingly unpopular Barack Obama.

Almost from the moment the dust settled on the 2008 election, Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, has been the heir apparent. But Republicans cannot take him to their hearts. The last few months have in essence been a search for "ABR"– Anyone But Romney.

The first aspirant was Tim Pawlenty, the Minnesota governor, but he was doomed by poor fundraising and forced to leave the race. Congresswoman Michele Bachmann was next, only to tumble back down the polls when Texas Governor Rick Perry entered the race offering, it was supposed, a perfect combination of big state executive experience and proven appeal to social conservatives. But after a dismal debate performance last week, and doubts about his capacity to withstand the gruelling ordeal of a campaign, Mr Perry has seen his lead over Mr Romney crumble.

Sarah Palin still waits in the wings, but most Republicans believe she has no chance of defeating Mr Obama, such is the antipathy towards her from centrist and independent voters. Two other names long floated – Mitch Daniels, the Indiana governor, and Jeb Bush, the younger brother of the last president – have have made it clear they will not run under any circumstances. Which leaves Mr Christie – but time is growing short. Filing deadlines for several key early caucuses and primaries are approaching, while Florida is threatening to move up its primary to 31January. This would force Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada to bring forward their votes. Precisely that happened in 2008, when the Iowa caucuses took place on 3 January – barely three months from now.

Other considerations complicate the issue even further for Mr Christie. Presidential campaigns are major long-term undertakings, requiring money, organisations in every state, and above all staying power. Mr Perry is but the latest example of how a candidate who looks great on paper can be less appealing in the flesh.

Mr Christie has been an effective and popular governor. But his moderate views on social issues could upset evangelical conservatives who play a disproportionate role in the primary season. More personally, there is the issue of his weight (20-plus stone) and its bearing on his health.

On the other hand, a lesson of presidential politics is that windows of opportunity close as quickly as they open. The New Jersey governor has repeatedly insisted he is not ready to become president. But when he feels he is, the chance may be gone.

Nothing to declare: Republican stars not in the race

Mitch Daniels

Under the slogan "My Man Mitch", the Indiana governor's bloke-next-door style has proven popular. He recently published a memoir and has made a series of national TV appearances, rekindling rumours that he may launch a presidential bid. But the 61-year-old continues to refuse to run.

Marco Rubio

The Republican Senator for Florida and Tea Party favourite was virtually unknown a year ago. Now, the 40-year-old has become a rising political star, whose Cuban heritage could help win him support from Latino voters in a presidential campaign, but he says he has no plans to run in 2012. Many believe he has an eye on the next presidential campaign.

Jeb Bush

Overseas, he's famous for being George W. Bush's little brother. But at home, Florida's former governor has made a name for himself as a reformer. Many Republicans would have liked to have seen him throw the weight of his dynastic name behind a campaign for the White House, but he has also declined to do so.

Sarah Palin

Many saw Joe McGinniss's gossip-laden biography of Alaska's former governor as the final nail in the coffin for Palin's political credibility, and the end of any aspirations for a White House bid. But Palin still has yet to firmly declare herself out of the race, and maintains that if she chose to run, she would win.