Attention Republican voters: We now return to our regularly scheduled programming.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie on Tuesday did what his previous denials about a presidential bid failed to accomplish: put an end to the incessant speculation about him running for president in 2012.
“I believed I had an obligation to seriously consider what people were asking me to do,’’ Christie said in a nationally televised press conference from his office in Trenton, N.J. “But in the end, what I've always felt was the right decision remains the right decision today. Now is not my time.’’
Showing his trademark self-deprecating sense of humor, he added, “I've made this commitment to my state first and foremost.... So New Jersey, whether you like it or not, you're stuck with me.’’
Christie’s decision means that barring an unexpected announcement from former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the 2012 Republican nominee is already running for president.
“I believe the field is set,’’ said Al Cardenas, chairman of the American Conservative Union. “The most important folks to get off the sidelines are the major donors who have been waiting to see how this plays out.’’
(RELATED: Highlights From Christie's News Conference)
Those well-heeled Republicans should brace themselves for a no-holds-barred assault from the current crop of candidates, who might consider playing the 1970 Stephen Stills hit Love the One You're With at their campaign stops. The former governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney, had the most to lose from a Christie bid, which could have siphoned away support from socially moderate Republicans and donors from the Northeast.
The latest polls show Romney reclaiming his front-runner status in the wake of a series of stumbles by Texas Gov. Rick Perry. In yet another sign of the race's volatility, a new Washington Post-ABC News survey released on Tuesday shows former pizza executive Herman Cain tied with Perry for second place.
When asked about Christie's dropping out, Romney was diplomatic.
"Compeition is always a good thing, and he would have been a very fine contender and an excellent competitor if he were in the race," he said.
(RELATED: Look Who's In and Who's Out of the 2012 Race)
The race now enters a new phase, in which voters will be coming to terms with the current Republican field and deciding whether to prioritize political ideology, executive experience, or leadership qualities. Does Romney’s business experience trump concerns about his health care record in Massachusetts? Is Perry’s moderate record on immigration a deal breaker? Is Cain a viable candidate for president?
The candidates will be making bottom-line decisions, too, calculating how to allocate their resources now that the primary calendar is coming into focus.
The much-hyped pressure on Christie to enter the race leaves the New Jersey governor in an enviable position in Republican politics, with a unique ability to raise money and attract attention. He’s also the newly elected vice chairman of the Republican Governors Association.
“This presidential speculation only enhances his position, and now he clearly has the entrée and (telephone) book to go wherever he wants to go,’’ said David Norcross, a member of the Republican National Committee and former committeeman from New Jersey. “He becomes a target for everybody who is running -- they all will want his endorsement -- and I am sure that he will be a force in the next election. He can help shape the platform and help deliver the message.’’
Christie would have faced the extraordinary challenge of getting a national campaign up and running only three months before the first votes are cast in Iowa in January. Perry, who didn’t enter the race until August and whose uneven debate performances cost him support in the polls, serves as a cautionary tale about the rigorous preparation demanded of a presidential bid. Christie is still largely unknown to most voters. A recent CBS News poll found that 63 percent of Republican primary voters were undecided or haven’t heard enough about him to form an opinion. Among those who did hold an opinion, 29 percent said they have a favorable view and 9 percent held an unfavorable view.
Christie is the latest is a string of notable Republican governors who have resisted appeals to join the 2012 primary and try to wrest the White House from President Obama, whose popularity has hit new lows. Like Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels and Mississippi Gov. Hailey Barbour, Christie decided to keep his day job.
Kim Alfano, a Republican consultant to Daniels, said that the hesitation among voters to settle on the current field shows that they are looking for someone with extraordinary ideas to lift the United States out of its economic doldrums. Polls show an unprecedented crisis of confidence in government.
“We’re still waiting to see something bold and way outside the box, and nobody has been that brave,’’ she said. “We have to come up with something really inventive to solve our problems. No one is there yet.’’
Christie’s decision is in line with his repeated and emphatic denials over the last year of any interest in the White House. Had he entered the race, Christie would have been regarded as a top-tier candidate likely to find support among many conservatives still lukewarm about their choices for president. He possesses a cult following among conservatives fond of his tough-talking style and a cadre of wealthy donors eager to raise money for his campaign.
But as he mulled whether to enter the race, questions arose about everything from whether he could put together a substantive organization in just a few months before the first primaries to whether his corpulence made him look unpresidential. In the crucial state of Iowa, several local party chairmen said they wondered if he could attract tea party support as well as persuade voters he had sufficient experience to be president.
“My guess is Christie needs about four more years or maybe four more years and then becomes VP,” said Garland “Mac” McDonald, chairman of Iowa’s Black Hawk County Republican Party. “He needs some international stuff, he needs some foreign policy. You know, there’s not a lot of foreign policy in New Jersey.”
Christie, who unseated Democratic incumbent Jon Corzine in 2009, became a conservative star after aggressively slashing New Jersey’s budget, including extracting deep concessions from the state’s politically powerful public-sector unions. He also sparred with union members, engaging in shouting matches that were featured in online videos that became a sensation among many Republicans.
His success led to incessant calls from many conservatives for Christie to run. At one point, Christie even joked he would have to commit suicide before reporters stopped asking him about it.
But he began seriously reconsidering in late September, after pressure from an array of Republicans dissatisfied with the current GOP field. The governor stirred further speculation when he delivered a high-profile speech in late September at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. In his remarks, he criticized Obama and some of his would-be Republican rivals.
Even as his star continues to rise nationally, Christie could face a tough re-election campaign at home in 2013, given his animosity toward labor unions. His popularity sagged in May 2011, with just 44 percent approving of his performance, according to a Fairleigh Dickinson University poll. However, an FCU poll released in late September showed his support back up to 54 percent.
Josh Kraushaar contributed.