It was the strangest case of autocorrect in history. Chris Christie kept saying, "No," but Republican dreamers in green rooms and board rooms kept hearing, "Please ask me again." On Tuesday the New Jersey governor finally put an end to the requests that he run for president. "New Jersey, whether you like it or not you're stuck with me," he said at a packed press conference from the state capital.
And now back to our regular programming, the “Romney and Not Romney” show. For those just tuning in, the role of Not Mitt Romney is being played for this half-hour by Herman Cain, who replaced Rick Perry, who inherited the role from Michele Bachmann. Christie could have been the most successful Not Romney to date, but as it turns out, he prefers the role of Not Running. Team Romney was so happy that when they got early word they called major donors to let them know. The campaign can now reach out to those who had been awaiting Christie's decision.
The Republican race for the presidency is now set. There may be more guest appearances, but the nominee is going to come from the current cast. Despair was the emotion animating the Christie candidacy, which wasn't so much a shadow campaign as a zombie campaign. No matter how many times Christie tried to kill the movement, it reappeared, enlivened by pundits, party insiders in the thrall of blunt talk, and an unsettled field.
There is an unresolved feeling about Romney. He is atop the polls again, but three-quarters of the voters say they want someone else. Even the majority of his supporters say they could still change their mind.
But there's no alternative for the conservatives who think Romney isn't one of them, or for those who might like Romney but want a little more pep in their candidate. Perry is in free-fall, his poll numbers plummeting, beset by troubles of his own making and out of left field. Cain has captured the imagination of a segment of the party, risen in the polls, but seems more like a boomlet—a crowd favorite lacking discipline or organization.
This isn't unusual. Voters like to have a say in the matter of who the presidential candidate is. This was true even when Ronald Reagan—yes, Ronald Reagan—ran in 1980. Republicans didn't just coronate him. They gave George H.W. Bush victories in Iowa, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. Then, when Bush ran for president in 1988, the party that supposedly picks the person whose turn it is chose someone other than the sitting vice president in the Iowa caucuses.
The nominating process is messy. The Christie boomlet was therapy for those who couldn’t handle the uncertainty. It was not a groundswell. A CBS poll shows that only 32 percent of those who said they would vote in a Republican primary wanted a Christie run, while 38 percent did not. In a Washington Post poll, 42 percent want him to run. Poll respondents didn’t know him that well, which accounts for those low numbers, but it would have been a challenge for him to define himself in such a short period of time before the first contest.
Christie had been a firm “no” throughout the months of courtship. A group of longtime New York and New Jersey Republican money-men promised to give him instant cash. He talked about running with everyone from George W. Bush to Henry Kissinger to Nancy Reagan. All were reportedly encouraging. In one of these conversations Christie left the impression he was seriously considering a run.