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.
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."
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.
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."
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.
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.