WASHINGTON - They've swooned over Texas Gov. Rick Perry and waxed poetic about his New Jersey counterpart, Chris Christie, just as they once did about Mitch Daniels, governor of Indiana.
The Republican establishment is keen to find the perfect presidential candidate to deny U.S. President Barack Obama a second term in 2012, even as Perry bitterly disappoints them on the campaign trail and Christie joins Daniels in dashing the party's hopes by opting against running for the nomination.
And yet there's one candidate in the field that public opinion polls consistently suggest could beat Obama next year: Mitt Romney, the former Masschussetts governor whose popularity among the general electorate has been all but ignored by the party even as Democrats nervously eye him as their biggest threat.
"Cheering for Romney is sort of like cheering for the neighbourhood bank; he just doesn't get the blood flowing," says Jack Pitney, a former Republican House of Representatives aide who now teaches at Claremont McKenna College in California.
"But maybe as 2012 approaches, the fact that he's viewed as electable by the general population will get Republicans more passionate about him."
The antipathy about Romney is simple, Pitney said Tuesday: Republicans don't think he's a true conservative. Romney started his political career as a moderate and today's Republican party has no time for those they consider dreaded RINOs _ an acronym for "Republicans in name only."
"There are some serious doubts about the depth of his convictions. Not that long ago, he was pro-choice, now he's shifted. He ran as a moderate in the 1990s, and some Republicans simply don't believe he's genuine," Pitney says.
But after Christie announced Tuesday that he isn't running for the nomination, some high-profile Republican pundits began sounding a different tune: There are no saviours in the wings who can swoop in to represent all things to all primary voters with just three months to go until primary season.
"Dream dating is over," Republican consultant Mark McKinnon told the Washington Post. "It's time to love the one you're with."
A new Washington Post-ABC News poll suggests that even though Republicans aren't fully satisfied with their choices, they believe they can win the election. And among the declared candidates, Romney leads with 25 per cent.
Perry and pizza magnate Herman Cain are tied for second place with 16 per cent, numbers representing a 13-point drop for Perry and a 12-point rise for Cain since the Texas governor first entered the race. Perry had subsequently embarrassed himself in a series of bad debate performances.
The poll suggests that even Romney's Mormon faith, long considered a political liability, doesn't seem to bother many Republicans anymore.
Just 20 per cent of white evangelical Protestants, a core Republican group that's traditionally distrustful of Mormons, say they'd refuse to cast a ballot for Romney. When he ran for president four years ago, 44 per cent of that group said they wouldn't vote for him.
The subtle shift in attitude toward Romney didn't stop the biggest names in the Republican party _ Barbara Bush, Nancy Reagan, Henry Kissinger and Rupert Murdoch among them _ from pleading with Christie to run. But one Republican strategist says Perry's wobbly foray onto the national political stage should be serving as a cautionary tale to the party.
"Rick Perry is a warning sign to any candidate who thinks running for president is easy and that you can do it in a short period of time," said Fergus Cullen, a Republican pundit who was once the head of the New Hampshire Republican Party.
"The simple magnitude of the task, of building a national organization, of raising the money and boning up on international and global issues that were not previously on your radar _ you can't do that quickly," he said.
"Before a candidate gets in, all anyone hears are the positives, and Perry is showing that some balance comes along with the higher profile and the media scrutiny. Christie would have faced the same thing, and Romney has already faced it. There is simply no such thing as the perfect candidate."
So will the party now begin to rally around Romney? Cullen's not sure.
Even Ronald Reagan, he points out, was dismissed as being too old and too conservative by many Republicans in 1979. But Reagan marched on to not only win the nomination but to become one of the conservative movement's most beloved presidents.
"It's not a unique situation at all, in this stage of the game, for there to be detractors with complaints about every candidate. It always happens," Cullen said.
"I personally have no problem with the current field; I think it's a strong field with plenty of good choices. Primary voters don't usually care so much about electability issues. Pat Buchanan, after all, won the New Hamsphire primary in '96 and no one truly thought he could win a general election."
But Pitney says electability will, in fact, become a bigger issue in the months to come, something that works in Romney's favour and may force the Republican establishment to finally embrace his candidacy.
"In the end, the electability factor is going to be a great benefit to Romney as the election gets closer. Right now it appears Obama is going to be in trouble, but Republicans can't count on a guaranteed victory. And so the sensible path would be to pick Romney. You will hear that argument being made soon."