Republicans are now confessing openly: The current field is weak, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry leaves them with substantial doubts. This conversation from the “Panel Plus” discussion of “Fox News Sunday” is illuminating:

There are several factors at play here.

First, Perry has not yet coaxed the big donors off the sidelines.There is plenty of money for Christie to scoop up.

Second, none of the candidates in the field has been able to put together all factions of the party. As Evan Bayh noted on Fox, Christie is someone who embodies the Tea Party spirit (feisty, anti-D.C. establishment) but is more than sophisticated enough to satisfy mainstream conservatives, business leaders and policy wonks.

But most important, Christie has done things and knows what he wants to do. At the American Enterprise Institute Christie had this to say about taking on entitlement reform:

Leadership today in America has to be about doing the big things and being courageous. That’s what it has to be about. Same thing with health-benefit reform, which is an analogy to Medicaid and Medicare here in Washington. . . . [Don’t think] the public workers in New Jersey hold on any less strongly to the benefits that they get through the government. Teachers in New Jersey . . . pay nothing for their health insurance — nothing — from the day they are hired until the day they qualify for full family medical coverage that costs the state of New Jersey $24,000 per family. [If] you don’t think they’re holding on to that tight — you’re not paying attention. The battles are similar. . . .

[President Obama] says the big things are high-speed rail, the big things are high-speed Internet access for almost 80 percent of America or something by some date. One million electric cars on the road by some date. Ladies and gentlemen, that is the candy of American politics. Those are not the big things. Because let me guarantee you something, if we don’t fix the real big things, there are going to be no electric cars on the road. There is going to be no high-speed Internet access, or if there is, you’re not going to be able to afford to get on it. We are not going to be able to care about the niceties of life — the investments that Washington wants to continue to make. That’s not what we need to be talking about. No one is talking about it.

That is a winning message, and one that hasn’t been articulated by anyone in the the field so far. Perry has essentially wasted a month with platitudes and playing defense on his past outrageous comments. Mitt Romney has rolled out a jobs plan that is less than daring. He’s done nothing on entitlement reforms. And here is Christie back in February:

What’s the truth that no one is talking about — here is the truth that no one is talking about: You’re going to have to raise the retirement age for Social Security. Oh, I just said it, and I’m still standing here! I did not vaporize into the carpeting, and I said it! We have to reform Medicare because it costs too much and it is going to bankrupt us. Once again lightning did not come through the windows and strike me dead. And we have to fix Medicaid because it’s not only bankrupting the federal government, it’s bankrupting every state government. There you go. If we’re not honest about these things, on the state level about pensions and benefits and on the federal level about Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, we are on the path to ruin.

And here’s the thing about that speech at AEI: He didn’t use a teleprompter. Sitting in the audience about five or six rows back, I didn’t see a written speech. On either side of me were mainstream reporters who were entirely transfixed. His humor is dry, he treats the audience like adults and he’s refusing to parrot the usual blather that pols dole out to a cynical press corps. That room had wonks and Tea Party advocates. It had conservative and mainstream media. And to a person, the reaction to that performance was “Wow.”

Let’s consider for a moment Christie in the GOP debate. Can you imagine what he’d say about Perry’s backpedaling on Social Security? Could you imagine him letting Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.) get away with nonsense about America bringing 9/11 on itself? Ooof. I imagine he’d brush off Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) with a shake of the head and a sly remark. (“Michele, that’s cuckoo land stuff. Mental retardation isn’t caused by a vaccination.”) And as for Romney, Christie would have a solid case to make that you really can govern as a full-throated conservative in a blue state.

Perhaps the best aspect to a Christie governance is his inclination to challenge conservatives, to aspire beyond rhetoric. At AEI he concluded:

[S]ome people say I’m too combative, some people say I’m too much of a fighter. Well, I’ll tell you, I’m fighting now because now is the time that matters most for New Jersey’s future and in America’s future. We are teetering on the edge of disaster. And I love when people talk about American exceptionalism but American exceptionalism has to include the courage to do the right thing. It cannot just be a belief that because we are exceptional, everything will work okay. Part of truly being exceptional is being willing to do the difficult things, is to stop playing the political games , stop looking at the bumper pool of politics and to step up and start doing the right thing. . . . See it seems to me, that what America is really all about is about a group of people who came from every corner of this earth because they wanted a chance for greatness. That’s what has made us the greatest country on Earth. Our calling for greatness at this time is to confront these issues, to say them out loud, and to stop playing around and to not waste another minute. . . .

We will be judged by our children and our grandchildren that at this moment of crisis, what did we do? Did we bury our heads in the sand? Did we surround ourselves with our creature comforts and believe that just because we’re America everything’s going to be okay? Or will our children and grandchildren be able to say that at this moment of crisis, we stood up and did the hard things that made a future of greatness possible for them. Believe me, we will be judged. I know the way I want that judgment to turn out for me, and I know in the hearts and the minds of most New Jerseyans and Americans I know how they want that judgment to turn out for them. So it’s time for us to get to work, to find our greatness again. And I believe we will find our greatness through doing the big things, the really big things that will lead America to another century of exceptionalism and not a century of settling for second best. That’s what this fight is about. If you’re willing to join me, I’m willing to join you and that’s what I came down here today to talk to you. Thank you very much. Thank you.

Isn’t that what Republicans have been waiting to hear?