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What if the 2012 Republican field is set?

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Everywhere you look these days there’s evidence that Republican voters aren’t thrilled with their choices for president.

In the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll just 43 percent of Republicans said they were satisfied with their choices — down from 65 percent who said the same at this point in the 2008 race. And, in a New York Times/CBS survey released this morning a majority — 56 percent — said they weren’t excited about any of the candidates yet.

Even elected officials are expressing ennui with the current field. “I’ll tell you, right now, no one in the field excites me right now,” South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley told the Associated Press on Wednesday.

The conventional wisdom is that the lack of enthusiasm for the current field creates a major opportunity for a late-arriving candidate like Govs. Chris Christie (N.J.) or Mitch Daniels (Ind.).

But, what if neither man — or any other serious candidate — decides to get into the race? What would happen if the field was, for all intents and purposes set?

There are two schools of thought on that question.

The first is that a lack of late entries favors the current frontrunner — former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney — as GOP primary voters are forced to make a decision more with their heads (electability) than their hearts.

In a NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released last week Romney led a crowded 2012 ballot with 21 percent of the vote. But when the pollsters narrowed the field to only those candidates likely to run, Romney jumped to 40 percent and a 20-point lead over former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Those numbers suggest that once voters end their flirtation with the various not-likely-to-run candidates and/or some of the second and third tier competitors drop out, Romney will be the prime beneficiary.

“If Daniels does not run, it helps Romney the most,” said Republican consultant Mike Murphy who has done work for the former Massachusetts governor in the past but is not involved this time around.

(Murphy added a note of caution about reading too much into voter discontent with the field; “This is all a insider, DC media, Republican donor and activist game right now,” said Murphy. “It’s not too relevant [until] next year.”

Romney will also almost certainly be the best funded candidate in the field with an organization that will maximize his ability to scoop up on-the-fence voters.

“Discontent should benefit the person with the best fundraising effort and most robust political network in the key states, which should be the frontrunner,” explained Mike DuHaime who managed the 2008 presidential campaign of former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

Perhaps the best historic comparison — although far from a perfect one -- for that sort of rallying effect came in the 2004 Democratic presidential primary race when Sen. John Kerry emerged as the nominee in what was widely regarded as a somewhat lackluster field that didn’t sort itself out until just before the Iowa caucuses.

The 1984 Democratic and 1996 Republican primary fights also featured a relatively weak frontrunner winning the nomination but in neither case was there this much discontent from the electorate about their options in the race.

The second scenario is that voters won’t give up their quest for a fresh face to get excited about even if Daniels, Christie, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and all other late-entry candidate stays out.

Under that line of thinking, voters not with Romney won’t simply default to him but rather will keep searching for someone to latch onto.

The closest historical analog of the scenario came in the 1992 Democratic presidential primary race when big name after big name took a pass on the race (Mario Cuomo, anyone?), leaving a wide-open field that Bill Clinton took by storm.

Who might benefit if that dynamic takes hold in 2012? The most obvious name is soon-to-be former U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman, an attractive self funder who is likely to run a campaign modeled on the maverick appeal of Sen. John McCain circa 2000.

Huntsman’s likely messaging — it’s time to rethink the way politics are done — is also a good fit if the electorate is looking for something new to rally behind.

Others who could theoretically benefit from a “fresh face” dynamic in 2012 are former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty and Rep. Michele Bachmann.

While the media and those most-attentive primary voters are focused not on who is in the race but who isn’t at the moment, most smart Republican operatives expect Daniels and Christie to stay out of the contest.

That means that it’s likely that GOP primary voters will have roughly the choices they have right now in terms of candidates. How they react to that reality will matter — greatly — in determing the identity of the nominee.

© The Washington Post Company