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Adam Hunger  /  REUTERS
Republican presidential hopefuls Texas Gov. Rick Perry (L), businessman Herman Cain, former U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas,(2nd R) and former Pennslyvania Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., (R) listen to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, (3rd R) speak Oct. 11, 2011.
updated 10/14/2011 4:02:40 PM ET 2011-10-14T20:02:40

There were still eight Republican presidential contenders on the Dartmouth College stage on Tuesday night, but this contest has clarified a great deal in recent weeks.

Looking at national and state poll standings, fundraising, endorsements by key leaders, and campaign organization, it’s pretty clear that Rep. Michele Bachmann, former Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, Rep. Ron Paul, and former Sen. Rick Santorum will not win the GOP presidential nomination. Each can point to individual or sporadic successes — or positive talking points about their chances — but the fact is that if any were going to catch fire in this campaign, there would at least have been a spark by now. From the Oct. 15 date on this issue’s cover, there are 80 days until the probable Jan. 3 Iowa caucus. New Hampshire’s primary will come the next week, followed by an almost endless stream of contests.

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Story: Perry makes jobs and energy pitch in speech

Herman Cain, the former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza, has seen a spark recently, spiking in national and state surveys. (Straw polls are meaningless: Just ask Ron Paul, who won many in 2008 yet failed to win a single caucus or primary.) But Cain appears to have little if any campaign infrastructure and few resources to take advantage of a surge. Additionally, many Republicans believe that President Obama’s lack of experience contributed to his problems in the White House; they argue that electing Cain would simply replace one inexperienced candidate with another. While it’s nice to talk about an executive track record, the question remains whether running Godfather’s Pizza or overseeing 400 Burger Kings in the Philadelphia region are sufficient preparation for becoming president of the United States and leader of the free world.

Fitting in campaign events around Cain’s long-planned book tour is certainly an interesting approach to the final stretch leading into the first caucuses and primaries — a time critical for fundraising and laying the groundwork for the grind that starts just after the first of the year. To be sure, a lot of conservatives like what Cain is saying and the way he says it, and they’re intrigued by his 9-9-9 tax plan (even though, as Bachmann points out, you flip it over and it becomes the devilish 6-6-6). But without money and an organization, he could be all dressed up with no place to go.

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Cain seems to be functioning as a parking place for conservatives who have grown disillusioned or who harbor reservations about the previous flavors of the month. Until he demonstrates strength in some of these other dimensions (fundraising, campaign organization), it’s a good bet that Cain is little more than a place for conservatives to window shop while they decide what to do. If Gertrude Stein were alive, she might observe that with the Cain campaign, “there is no there there.”

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In reality, there is an extraordinarily high probability that the Republican nominee will be either former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney or Texas Gov. Rick Perry. Two-thirds of Republican voters are now very right of center. Call them tea party or social conservatives or whatever you want, but they want a Republican nominee who is a no-holds-barred, unadulterated conservative. They want a Perry or a Bachmann or someone like that, but they aren’t sure they specifically want Perry, and they seem to have concluded that they don’t want Bachmann. In any case, that type of candidate does not include someone from the establishment Republican Party like Romney. Maybe it’s Romney’s Massachusetts health care plan, maybe it’s his (to use Edward Kennedy’s phrase) “multiple-choice” positions on abortion or other cultural issues, or maybe it’s his Mormon faith, but these conservative Republicans have a lot of reservations about Romney.

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Then there is Perry. In Tuesday’s debate, the Texas governor was clearly not the winner. Indeed, his performance was underwhelming. But he did survive with no apparent stumbles that could harm his competitiveness as a candidate. With the Republican Party wanting to nominate someone of his ilk, the question is whether Perry can effectively grow and develop as a national candidate — and tone down the rhetorical excesses and missteps — enough to win outside of the Deep South. If he can, he’s the nominee. If he can’t, he might not be.

Video: Gregory: Cain's in a very interesting moment (on this page)

Romney exudes intelligence and competence, and every debate makes him look more presidential and more like someone who would be a very strong favorite to win a general election — if he wins the GOP nomination. Whether he can overcome right-wing doubts will largely hinge on whether Perry makes the turn from being a Texas candidate into being a national one, scratching that ideological itch that conservatives have. If he doesn’t, Republicans may hold their noses and go with the guy that is a very good bet to beat President Obama next November.

The article, "The Cook Report: Bird in the Hand," first appeared in the National Journal.

Copyright 2012 by National Journal Group Inc.

Video: Perry calls for new jobs, Cain defends 9-9-9 plan

  1. Transcript of: Perry calls for new jobs, Cain defends 9-9-9 plan

    BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: And at the same time, two of the president's rivals, Republicans running for his job, were drilling down on the economy and taxes today. NBC 's Kelly O'Donnell has our report tonight.

    KELLY O'DONNELL reporting: With a hard hat and a new jobs plan, Governor Rick Perry picked a steel plant near Pittsburgh to reboot his nine-week-old campaign.

    Governor RICK PERRY: Creating jobs in America is as simple as changing presidents, and that is the choice facing Americans.

    O'DONNELL: Going big with a blitz of TV interviews today...

    Gov. PERRY: I don't worry too much about polls.

    O'DONNELL: ...and his first policy address, Perry claimed he could create 1.2 million jobs by expanding American oil and natural gas production on lands now protected from drilling.

    Gov. PERRY: I do not accept the choice that we must pick between energy and the environment.

    O'DONNELL: Adjusting to his new front-runner status...

    Mr. HERMAN CAIN: Nine, nine, nine!

    O'DONNELL: ... Herman Cain is now pushing back on critics who claim his tax code overhaul, including a 9 percent national sales tax, would hit lower income people harder.

    Mr. HERMAN CAIN: It is transparent. It is efficient. It is fair. Not fair according to Washington 's definition of fair, but fair according to the definition in Webster's dictionary .

    O'DONNELL: Critics insist Cain identify the advisers who have helped him craft his nine, nine, nine plan.

    Mr. CAIN: I'm not going to tell you. They're my advisers. They're not yours. They just want to know who my smart people are so they can attack them.

    O'DONNELL: Today Cain , who typically does not focus on race as a campaign issue, described slurs made against him and rejected racial attacks.

    Mr. CAIN: Because I am an American black conservative who thinks for myself and I have left that democrat plantation, I guess that makes me a bad apple . Then I'm just going to be a bad apple .

    O'DONNELL: And Cain said today that he really feels that target on his back now that he has climbed in the polls, with scrutiny from the media, from other GOP contenders. And, Brian , he has a very high profile weekend here in Washington , DC , that will include attending the formal dedication of the memorial for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Brian :

    WILLIAMS: Kelly O'Donnell in our DC newsroom tonight, thanks. And there'll


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