POLITICS
10/06/2011 12:00 EDT | Updated 12/06/2011 05:12 EST

Republicans left with Romney-Perry primary race as Palin joins Christie in stepping aside

WASHINGTON - The Republicans are left with a two-man battle for the presidential nomination — Mitt Romney and Rick Perry — after two other candidates who might have changed the party's primary contest decided this week against joining the race.

Sarah Palin, the former Alaska governor and Republican vice-presidential nominee in 2008, ended speculation on Wednesday that she would jump into the contest. The outspoken Palin said she was freer to promote her deeply conservative message unshackled from a national candidacy.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who fought back powerful enticements from the Republican establishment and big-time donors, took himself out of contention on Tuesday.

With U.S. economic woes putting President Barack Obama in a deeply vulnerable position in the 2012 election, Republicans had been searching for someone other than the patrician Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, or the rough-and-tumble Texas Gov. Perry.

Christie was particularly sought after for his success in slashing the New Jersey budget in these days of fevered concern about government debt. His blunt-spoken style appealed strongly to Republican conservatives — even if some of his policies cause them unease.

Palin had gradually but steadily fallen from favour in recent months and her announced decision against running was more a formality than a choice.

Now, with the start of primary voting just three months away, the reality of time would all but rule out a new candidate being able to join the race hence forward. Five key nominating contests — in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, Florida and South Carolina — all happen in January and would require nearly inhumane campaign organizing for new Republican entrant.

Thus the Republicans are left with Romney, who lost the Republican nomination in 2008 but has started to shore up support among longtime party leaders, and Perry, who has emerged as the top challenger despite a rocky few weeks that have raised concerns among Republican elders about whether he's ready to take on Obama.

The Republicans' tea party wing, a new force in this presidential election, had eagerly rallied behind candidate after candidate without finding a favourite. They flirted with real estate mogul Donald Trump; they backed Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann in a key test vote in Iowa; now they're driving a surge in polling for businessman Herman Cain.

Christie's backers and Palin's ardent fans had been waiting to see whether either of them would run.

Now that they are not, those supporters are free to choose sides. It is not clear where they will turn.

In bowing out of a bid, Palin, whose unconventional style and sheer celebrity would have been an unpredictable but unquestionable force in the primary season, made clear she still would try to have a voice in the 2012 race.

"You don't need a title to make a difference in this country," Palin said Wednesday. She declined to endorse anyone but indicated she would back the eventual nominee.

It's unclear whether her supporters will heed her advice. Many used social networking sites to assail her decision.

Romney, meanwhile, is pursuing Christie's supporters, with some success. Several high-profile figures backed him after Christie's announcement Tuesday.

Romney has a strong case to make. He has national name recognition and a top-notch national campaign staff. He has a national fundraising network. His weaknesses already have been vetted, and he has been able to dispatch questions about them. He's built a strong campaign in New Hampshire and is quietly organizing in Iowa, where he learned from the mistakes he made last time and is working to keep expectations low. He's racking up endorsements in key states like Florida. And while he's had trouble winning over the restless conservative base, he can argue that his even-keeled campaign can take its well-honed economic message and use it to beat Obama.

But what Romney hasn't shown is that he can gain from Perry's stumbles. The latest Washington Post-ABC news poll of Republicans found Romney's popularity unchanged at 25 per cent. Perry dropped to 16 per cent from a previous survey, tied with Cain, the former pizza executive who has surged in recent weeks.

"Nobody wants to put a candidate forward just because they happen to be the most electable," veteran campaign consultant Terry Nelson said.

Perry announced Tuesday that he had raised more than $17 million in the first six weeks of his presidential bid. He has a third-party SuperPAC to raise outside funds, so he potentially could match a similar effort by Romney's team. On Tuesday, he earned the support of a prominent Christie backer in Iowa. And much of his support comes from the tea party Republicans — a group in part defined by their opposition to establishment politics — who are driving Republican enthusiasm in 2012. An August AP-GfK poll showed 74 per cent of tea party backers viewed Perry positively.

But because he's the new guy, most voters are still learning who Perry is. His inexperience has shone through, and it's already driving doubts about his candidacy and left him to prove to both voters and to party insiders that he's ready to be president.

Perry stumbled in recent debates. On the campaign trail, he's been pushed off his core message about jobs in Texas by voter questions about immigration, Social Security and other issues that are of less concern to voters.

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Associated Press writer Kasie Hunt contributed to this report from Washington.