Image: Mitt Romney, Thomas Bryant, John Thrasher
Phil Sears  /  AP
Seminole Wind restaurant owner Thomas Bryant, left, and Florida State Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, center, share a laugh with Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney as he arrives at a lunch stop at the restaurant in Tallahassee, Fla. , Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2011.
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updated 10/5/2011 5:22:19 PM ET 2011-10-05T21:22:19

With the Chris Christie tease over, Mitt Romney is telling Republican activists there's all the more reason to get excited about his presidential campaign. They will keep him waiting a bit longer, it seems.

A handful of major GOP donors jumped into Romney's camp this week after Christie, the New Jersey governor, ruled out a candidacy. But many party activists still appear restless, casting about for a conservative alternative and wondering if Texas Gov. Rick Perry can fill the role despite his shaky debate performances.

With caucus and primary voting to start in about three months, Christie's announcement brought the presidential race into sharper focus. Republicans say the eventual nominee almost surely will come from the current field. And President Barack Obama, whose liberal base is grumpy, is trying to distinguish himself more sharply from Republicans in Congress and in the presidential contest, sometimes calling them out by name.

Don't count Perry out just yet
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Polls show that Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, attracts about one-fourth of prospective GOP voters, with the rest looking to Perry, Herman Cain, Ron Paul and others.

Romney's backers praise his consistency and stay-the-course discipline. Other party insiders, however, see a stubborn and troubling resistance to his appeal among voters likely to show up in the dead of winter for the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary.

"The guy has been running for president for five years and hasn't sold 75 percent of the Republicans," said Mike McKenna, a Virginia-based GOP lobbyist and strategist. Perry remains the likeliest threat to Romney's nomination, McKenna said, but he can't afford more appearances where he mangles his criticism of Romney's policy flips and seems to deride people who disagree with Texas' policy of subsidizing illegal immigrants' college costs.

"Perry had a real rocky rollout and has used up all his margin for error," McKenna said. "He needs to be spot-on from now on."

Video: Time begins to run out for Palin bid (on this page)

Most troubling for Romney are signs that he has not gained from Perry's stumbles. The latest Washington Post-ABC news poll of Republicans found Romney's popularity unchanged at 25 percent. Perry dropped to 16 percent from a previous survey, tied with Cain, a former pizza company executive who has surged lately.

Few campaign veterans think Cain, who has never held elected office, can win the nomination. But his rise, similar to the one once made by Rep. Michele Bachmann, signals that many GOP activists still prefer someone more aggressively conservative than the measured Romney, who ran in 2008 and has long been seen as the party's establishment candidate.

Cain "is starting to pick up steam, more so than I'm hearing for Perry," said Glenn McCall, Republican chairman in York County, S.C. The South Carolina primary will follow the Iowa and New Hampshire contests. "Every day I'm getting calls from people wanting to know when he's coming, or how to sign up for his campaign," McCall said.

Story: Sarah Palin says she's not running for president in 2012

Brendan Steinhauser of FreedomWorks, a group linked to the tea party movement, said Cain's rise "shows the opening for a conservative is still there." Either Cain or Perry "will likely emerge as the conservative, anti-establishment alternative to Mitt Romney," he said. "The final goal is beating Barack Obama with the most conservative candidate that can win."

Romney's supporters say he has the best chance of ousting Obama. They point to Perry's debate problems, and to questions about the racist name of a Texas hunting camp Perry has used, as typical of the surprises that bring fast-soaring contenders back to earth.

Yet Romney has long struggled to win GOP voters' enthusiasm.

"Nobody wants to put a candidate forward just because they happen to be the most electable," said veteran campaign consultant Terry Nelson. Voters want someone "who has the kind of vision and solutions they think might work," he said, and Romney's team is "trying to put forward that vision."

Video: Will Perry regain his footing? (on this page)

Perry showed his impressive fundraising Wednesday, when his campaign reported raising more than $17 million in his first seven weeks as a candidate. For the quarter that just ended, Romney was expected to raise less than the $18 million he brought in during his first three-month fundraising period. Paul, the libertarian-leaning Texas congressman, said he raised about $8 million.

A few high-profile donors and officials endorsed Romney shortly after Christie's announcement Tuesday. They included donors John Catsimatidis of New York and Home Depot co-founder Ken Langone. Among the officials backing Romney were U.S. Rep. Tim Griffin and Lt. Gov. Mark Darr of Arkansas.

Obama, meanwhile, has stepped up his fundraising as well as his jabs at his GOP opponents. He recently described the Republican contenders as "a stage full of political leaders" who failed to admonish a Republican debate audience that booed a gay soldier stationed in Iraq. "We don't believe in a small America," Obama told a gay rights gathering.

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In Dallas on Tuesday, Obama taunted House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., for opposing the White House's jobs bill. "I would like Mr. Cantor to come here to Dallas and explain what exactly in this jobs bill he does not believe in," the president said.

Several liberal activists cheered Obama's feistier side. For now, both parties are largely focused on their ideological bases. In a few months, Republicans will pick a nominee for the 2012 campaign that could well be determined by unaffiliated voters paying scant attention to the current goings on.

___

Associated Press writers Steve Peoples in New Hampshire, Tom Beaumont in Iowa, Philip Elliott in Washington and Gary Fineout in Florida contributed to this report.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Time begins to run out for Palin bid

  1. Closed captioning of: Time begins to run out for Palin bid

    >>> in today's political briefing, is sarah palin running out of time ? with chris christie out of the race, will palin beat the clock and turn her half-hearted flirtation into a real campaign? she seems to be signaling no.

    >> does a title shackle a person? are they, someone like me, who's a maverick, you know, i do go rogue and call it like i see it, and i don't mind stirring it up. is a title and a campaign too shackling? does that prohibit me from being out there, out of a box?

    >> ben smith is a senior political reporter for politico. well, ben, i think that the speculation about sarah palin at this stage, she's got to do something by october 28th . isn't that the real deadline now for filing?

    >> if she wants to, she can be in the florida primary , she has to make a decision soon. she said she'd make a decision last month, so who knows.

    >> what is your sense as to what she's doing? we wouldn't want her to be shackly.

    >> my sense is that it matters less andless. she's an unpredictable character and certainly could get in. but the same that's true of her now which has been true of her for more than a year. republican activists love her, are excited to have her on the stage, but also don't want her to be shackled into a job like the presidency.

    >> 31% of "the washington post " poll said she should run. 66% said she shouldn't.

    >> a lot of people love jesse jackson , but don't want him to run for president. there's a role for activists, who are out there hammering the issue, but are not running for the white house .

    >> one quick footnote there, there was a report in politico, i think maggie hayburne was reporting that a law firm with ties to palin, a law firm tied to her pac, had made inquiries about her filing deadlines.

    >> there's semi-formal draft groups. someone was certainly calling around, checking to see if she could get in. and the answer is, yes, she could, and i certainly wouldn't rule out the possibility.

    >> she's the only one that would really have the money right up-front, indeed. thank you very much. thanks, ben.

    >> thank you.

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