After Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s meltdown in last week’s debate, conservatives were stunned and shaken. Stephen Hayes reported on disillusioned conservatives whose support Perry lost by “misstatements of fact, missed opportunities and general incoherence.” His collapse continued with a loss to Hermann Cain by a huge margin of 37 to 15.43% percent in the Florida straw poll on Saturday.

There was his mangled attack on Romney in the debate that left some wondering if Perry had fallen ill, the verbal duel with Rick Santorum on immigration (leaving Perry sputtering that those who disagreed with him had no heart) and then a botched answer on loose Pakistani nukes. (“He stumbled through a reference to the Haqqani network and shifted rather abruptly to India and Taiwan.”)

Perry’s debate debacle was not an isolated event. It simply crystallized the quietly expressed worries that he lacks serious ideas and the ability to advocate them. Reaction from operatives, officials and other GOP insiders ranged from disgust to dismay. The central question: Is there someone else, or will they come to peace with a Romney candidacy?

So now the immediate prospects other than Romney boil down to Santorum (whose debate performance was as strong as Perry’s was weak) and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (if he decides his country demands his candidacy). These three individuals’ faults are well known. Two don’t have direct national security experience. One has primarily been a legislator. But let’s for a moment look at what each could bring to the table.

Christie, according to those I spoke to since the debate and who are familiar with his thinking, is meeting with a variety of donors, officials and Republican insiders. The pressure has increased on him both privately and in public to enter the race. He has no “Mitch Daniels” problem, that is, a wife who would forbid his run. (“Mary Pat has always supported whatever the governor wants to do,” said a source.) This was not a grand scheme; there was no coy strategy over the year. But events have changed. The primary front-runner has faltered, conservatives are looking for an alternative and he remains the sole alternative to Romney who would instantaneously draw donors, media attention and support from all facets of a center-right coalition. Moreover, as the chances of a GOP winner increase, conservatives recognize that there is perhaps a once-in-a-century opportunity to field a candidate who can win and govern with conservative conviction.

He would need to make up his mind by month’s end to make primary filing dates. If he decides to jump in, he is the one Republican of these three who most closely tracks the job description I laid out above. He went to Trenton and took on an entrenched mentality of tax and spend and borrow (refusing to sign a millionaire’s tax); faced down public- employee unions (for teachers and others); engaged with forceful media (his press conferences have become YouTube hits) and convinced the public of needed sacrifices (by making the case for and getting passed reform of retirement and health benefits). He did all that in a blue state.

Then there is Romney. Should Christie not take the plunge, Romney will be the prohibitive favorite. He has run a disciplined campaign reflective of his executive skills. He has turned around enterprises in catastrophic straits. By all accounts he was was successful in managing the Olympics and at Bain Capital, saving dying business and frankly recognizing which ones couldn’t be saved. With the notable exception of Romneycare, he governed as a centrist Republican in a liberal state. And finally, while he has not served in the military or held a national security post, he’s made an effort to learn about the world, articulate his vision and reflect deeply held positions of conservatives (on defense spending, Israel, and Iran).

Then there is Santorum. He’s gone from invisibility to dark horse contender since the Ames straw poll. Before the wipeout year of 2006 (when he and many other conservatives lost), he won races in a purple state and got support from a key demographic, voters previously called Reagan Democrats. Moreover, once in office he collaborated with Democrats on major pieces of legislation including welfare reform while defending conservative values. He also stood up for social conservatives, helping to pass the most significant legislative restriction on abortion since Roe v. Wade (banning partial birth abortion). Years before 9/11 he was warned about the jihadist threat and helped pass an early Iran sanctions bill. He can be theoretically effective, as he was when he framed precisely the right question to ensnare Perry on immigration (why subsidize in-state tuition?).

In short, there are gaps or demerits in each of these guys’ resumes. But each would be a huge improvement over Obama, each could go toe-to-toe in a debate with him and each has essentially the same anti-Obama economic agenda (low taxes, reduced spending, entitlement reform but not destruction, and regulatory relief for business).

So a Christie-Rubio or a Romney-Ryan or Santorum-McDonnell ticket (or some combination thereof) would be formidable. Republicans have some credible choices; the candidate who performs best will win it. Republicans should choose wisely; they could very likely be picking the next president of the United States.