If Mitt Romney can’t start locking up the GOP nomination now, he may never be able to. The former Massachusetts governor’s charmed path toward the presidential nomination was made even smoother Tuesday when New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie opted out of a campaign and recommended that voters choose the candidate with the “best chance” of beating President Barack Obama.
No white knight from Trenton, N.J., or anywhere else is riding into the race as the establishment’s savior. Romney’s would-be chief rival for the nomination, Rick Perry, is dropping in the polls amid doubts from conservatives and pragmatists. And the one candidate on the rise, Herman Cain, is running for president in between stops to hawk a new book.
“In tax policy, this would be known as the unlocking effect,” former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie said about the effect of Christie’s decision. “A lot of folks who’ve been waiting to see other candidates get in the race will begin moving to declared candidates.”
Crowed Romney adviser Ron Kaufman: “This is the end of ‘Waiting for Superman.'”
But for all the same reasons Christie’s decision ends the uncertainty that hovered over Romney, it also launches a frantic period for his campaign. He’s now under intense pressure to consolidate the Republican establishment behind his candidacy and build up the coveted and self-reinforcing sense of inevitability his candidacy has lacked to date.
And there were some signs in the hours after Christie’s decision that the movement to Romney had begun.
Incoming Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford and state Rep. Chris Dorworth, who had been for Tim Pawlenty, are going to get behind Romney when he visits Tallahassee on Wednesday, according to GOP sources.
Some members of the coy New York money crowd indicated that they will now back Romney.
Romney talked Tuesday afternoon with Ken Langone, the Home Depot co-founder who had been the leading cheerleader for a Christie candidacy, and two senior Romney officials say he’s come on board. And veteran GOP fundraiser Georgette Mosbacher told Capital New York that she is also getting on board.
New York grocery magnate John Catsimatidis is also coming out for Romney.
“He’s a middle-of-the-road guy, and even though it doesn’t make the conservatives 100 percent happy, he’s capable of making them 75 percent happy, and he’s capable of getting 51 percent against President Obama – which is a lot better than making the conservatives happy and getting 47 percent of the vote,” Catsimatidis said.
“I see a lot of New Yorkers in the financial community headed that way,” Catsimatidis continued, noting that Jamie Dimon – the JPMorgan Chase chief who has been an Obama admirer – recently turned up at a Romney fundraiser.
In Washington and Boston, Romney backers were both making and taking phone calls all afternoon following Christie’s decision, and the candidate himself was dialing some of the most coveted money men.
One Romney official said that before 4 p.m., he had gotten calls from six senators, four members of Congress, former Cabinet secretaries and governors.
“Five calls a day is a lot – well, quadruple that,” the official said of the incoming calls. “The time for choosing is about here – that’s the basic message.”
Added another plugged-in Romney backer: “The D.C.-New York corridor was waiting for today. Over the next two weeks, you’ll see people finding their home.”
On Thursday, Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) will host a sit-down with other congressional Romney supporters to plot how to nail down more endorsements.
Even before Christie got out, Perry’s debate performances had prompted some Republicans to conclude that the race was within Romney’s grip.
Top lobbyists who had been on the sidelines, for example, began moving to Mitt. Sam Geduldig, an early K Street Pawlenty backer, said he cut a check maxing out to Romney last week – before the end-of-quarter filing deadline.
Christie’s withdrawal also brings a measure of clarity to Romney’s path through some of the unpredictable early states.
“For Mitt Romney, if it’s not already, New Hampshire is going to be his to lose,” said Rep. Charlie Bass (R-N.H.). “Without Chris Christie, Rick Perry was [Romney’s] last big threat, and I don’t think his candidacy is going to mature anymore than it has.”
Romney’s team sees this moment as a time for choosing and is making no secret of its pitch: Romney is inevitable, so get on board now.
“People are going to start to realize that either Mitt Romney or Barack Obama is going to be the next president of the United States,” said chief Romney strategist Stuart Stevens.
“You’re starting to clarify the nomination process,” said Woody Johnson, the New York Jets owner and Romney backer who helped call on-the-fence donors Tuesday. Predicting a “burgeoning of support,” Johnson added: “We’ll pick up some fundraisers – I think this is good from that standpoint.”
But veteran Republicans don’t believe that Perry, who has been taking fire from conservatives for his immigration stance and facing growing doubts about his general election prospects from pragmatists, will go away quietly.
Sources familiar with the Texas governor’s fundraising said Tuesday that he would raise over $15 million for the third quarter and indicated he had not been soliciting general election funds. That would mean that, in just a half-quarter of raising money, Perry will near Romney’s initial $18 million take earlier this year.
“I could see Perry-Romney stretching out over several months,” Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a veteran political strategist, said, noting that both have strong political and financial bases.
And Cole added that, given the head-snapping ups and downs of the race, Perry could turn things around.
“The debates aren’t over yet – if he had a great debate performance, that could change things rapidly,” said the congressman.
A longtime party insider said he was hearing from donors who now are indicating that they are cutting checks to Romney but likened it to the feeling in the party in 2008 when it became clear that John McCain was going to capture the nomination.
“It’s not enthusiasm; it’s settling,” the insider said, predicting that Perry will still “go the long haul.”
Working in Perry’s favor is that even with Christie’s decision, some leading lights in the party still just can’t yet accept Romney.
“I still haven’t decided yet,” former RNC finance chair and Florida mega-donor Al Hoffman said after Christie’s decision when asked if he’d made up his mind. “I think the field is as muddled as ever, and I want to see how it shakes out.”
And both Cole, a former National Republican Congressional Committee chairman, and Bass said that while some GOP members of Congress may move following the Christie news, they didn’t envision a dam burst for Romney.
Further, the departure of a candidate who would have appealed to many establishment and business types also means Romney has one less excuse to stay out of Iowa. Pressure will now increase for the former Massachusetts governor to try to deliver a knockout blow there.
“If Romney were able to take Iowa, that would be really, really tough on Perry,” said a senior GOP strategist.
What has some in the party uneasy is that even as Perry has swooned, Romney has not been the beneficiary. Polls indicate that the former Massachusetts governor has retaken the lead in both national surveys and some key states, but it’s Cain, the former Godfather’s Pizza CEO, who has taken up some of Perry’s support.
Romney’s aides point to Cain’s rise as a mark of Perry’s weakness – “Cain is a better version of what Rick Perry was trying to sell than Rick Perry is,” said Stevens. But his strength also means Romney has failed to close the deal. Few Republican insiders think that Cain, who has never held elected office and is now promoting a book far from Iowa, is a viable candidate.
Still, the emerging consensus from party pros after Christie’s formal exit is that this is Romney’s best chance yet to emerge from the pack.
“Many of the folks who urged Christie to run came from the finance world and Wall Street, and although Romney was not their first choice, he may well be their final choice,” said Matt Schlapp, who was a political director for former President George W. Bush.
Added Cole: “If I were Mitt Romney, I’d probably be popping champagne corks right now.”