Byron York, as many others of us have reported, observed, that at the Orlando post-GOP debate gathering, most attendees were “reassessing their early positive opinions of the Texas governor.” If the straw polls, voter reaction and media criticism over the last few days are any indication, the race has taken a new turn.
Meanwhile, the buzz surrounding New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is building. A spokesman for Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell e-mails me: “I know the Governor thinks Christie is a smart, innovative, and principled conservative. He’s been impressed, like so many others have been, with his leadership and success in a blue state. He has enjoyed working with him at RGA, a relationship that will only grow now that Christie serves as Vice-Chair of the organization.”
But what does all of this really mean? Let’s look at some potential scenarios.
#1: New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie decides to enter the race. He immediately soars to the top of the polls and drains support from Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Mitt Romney. But he doesn’t consider Iowa viable, so he concentrates on New Hampshire and other early primary states. With Perry, Rick Santorum and Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) dividing up 30 to 40 percent of the caucus vote, Romney wins with 25 percent, gains new momentum, surges into New Hampshire and effectively ends the contest.
#2: Christie enters the race and most of Romney’s support vanishes. Santorum or another strong social conservative wins Iowa, but is not competitive beyond the social conservative base. Christie wins New Hampshire, Arizona, Florida and Nevada and wraps up the race on Super Tuesday.
#3: Christie enters, but the same conservatives who abandoned Perry and couldn’t stomach Romney nitpick Christie to death. He’s insufficiently robust on guns or gay marriage or illegal immigration. They find reasons not to like him. Christie never rises to the top; Romney does well in Iowa and wins the remaining early primaries. Romney effectively wraps up the win before Super Tuesday.
#4: Christie doesn’t enter the race. Perry continues to fade. It becomes a two-man race between Romney and Santorum. Santorum captures the hearts of the base but lacks a campaign network and strong organization. Romney wins without breaking a sweat.
#5: Christie enters strongly but with expected bumps along the way. The race becomes a Clinton-Obama sort of duel between Christie and Romney going through June. The hard right becomes fragmented over Bachmann, Perry, Herman Cain and Santorum. Christie and Romney run, in essence, competing general election campaigns. Whoever wins picks the other as vice president, after lifting turnout and sending excitement in the GOP through the roof. President Obama trails by 10 points by July 1.
#6: Christie enters, but Santorum catches fire, winning Iowa and climbing into a three-man race with Christie and Romney, who divide the mainstream vote. Santorum consolidates support from the Tea Party and social conservatives and pulls a stunning upset.
These, of course, are only a very few of the possible outcomes. I don’t think Perry can regain his mystique and remain the top of the pack. In fact, I find it more likely that Santorum would rise to the top (#6) than that Perry would remain there.
The outcome depends on whether Christie enters and how he performs if he does. Conservatives tempted to knock him down should consider the possibility that they will hand the nomination to Romney. What is certain is the race has been shaken up, the candidates are being properly vetted and the winner is likely to be better tested than any GOP contender in recent memory. In that sense, the GOP is sitting pretty right now.