The pundits do it. The GOP operatives do it. The moderators do it. They all act as the only choices for the Republican electorate are Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Mitt Romney. This conviction, an incorrect assumption I will argue, skews the debates toward those two candidates. It prompts conservative pundits to defend Perry’s missteps for fear of enabling Romney. And it soon becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy as donors and media coverage abandon the other contenders.

Moreover, it simply isn’t true that the choice is down to those two. Let’s remember that Bill Clinton in September 1991 was not in the race. No state filing deadlines have been missed for the 2012 primaries. Aside from the Ames straw poll, no significant votes have been cast. So it is possible for another contender to get into the mix. But whom would that be?

Let’s start with those already in the race. The most likely contenders to move up into contention are Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) and Rick Santorum. Santorum had his best debate so far last night and arguably won the contest (although few would acknowledge that someone not on the media’s top rung of candidates could lap the field). Santorum actually did things in office (welfare reform, NIH funding, etc.) and knows something about national security. Bachmann, as we saw last night, still commands the affection of the Tea Party and can make the case that she’s been battling ObamaCare, TARP and the rest from the get-go.

In order to have a chance, Bachmann or Santorum would have to win Iowa or at least hope Perry loses, thereby knocking him from contention and elevating one of them. Recall that Mike Huckabee (largely on the strength of good debate performances) did just that in 2008 but was unable to extend his appeal beyond his base of social conservatives after the caucuses. To have a chance in Iowa these candidates will have to continue to apply pressure on Perry, hope he stumbles, raise an issue near-and-dear to the base’s heart (perhaps his high-flying lifestyle charged to the taxpayers) and count on social conservatives to help them pull an upset. Likely? Not very. Possible? Absolutely.

Another option is that someone could still get into the race. No, it’s not too late. For sake of argument, suppose Jeb Bush or New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie got dragged into the race. Does anyone doubt that either one of them could raise money, quickly rise in the polls, make a splash at debates and win one of the critical early primaries? Or, if you don’t like those choices, maybe another governor (e.g., Ohio Gov. John Kasich, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell). Perhaps one of the candidates who tested the waters and declined to run could have a change of heart, if he or she were “drafted” in some fashion.

The biggest argument for another candidate is Perry’s failure to close the deal. He’s turned in two very spotty debate performances and refused to put nettlesome issues to bed by disclaiming imprudent comments and ill-thought-out positions. He hasn’t presented any proposals, relying purely on his record (albeit a very good one) in Texas. Right now he’s collecting the lion’s share of the not-Romney votes, but if there were another not-Romney who had a solid record, was a familiar face and could present a compelling agenda, wouldn’t a lot of Perry’s support melt away?

In short, it’s a false choice that Republicans are being asked to make at this stage. It may be that they accept either Perry or Romney at some point, but they don’t have to. Not now. The only thing standing between the GOP primary electorate and a better choice is the misguided belief that there is no alternative to the current crop. Well, that and someone who is willing to make a “sacrifice”of a few months to see if he can capture the nomination and give his party a better shot at the presidency. We just went through a weekend of tributes to the sacrifices of servicemen and women and their families (not to mention ordinary civilians caught up in an attack on America). In light of those sorts of sacrifices, it really too much to ask for one of these Republicans to give the presidential race a try? Good grief, they surely can’t imagine that they will endear themselves to Republican voters if they sit this one out and President Obama is reelected, do they?

More on the GOP debate from PostOpinions

Thiessen: A pathetic national security debate

Milbank: Under attack, Perry stumbles

Dionne: GOP’s Social Security hypocrisy

Stromberg: Perry’s substance vs. Romney’s substance

Bernstein: GOP spins further from reality

Petri: Rick Perry’s sinister vaccines