The most accurate take on the dynamic in the pre-primary for the GOP presidential nomination comes from veteran Republican Dan Senor, who is close to the donor community and knows several of the hopefuls extremely well. He contends that Jeb Bush’s early announcement, followed by an extremely impressive round of early meetings in Boston and New York with donors, forced Mitt Romney to move before he really wanted to. The fear within Romney World was that unless the former Massachusetts governor moved soon to freeze donors, Bush might run away with it and eliminate any potential that Romney could be called in late in the game as the savior of the party. Rather than wait for gridlock and pleading to get into the race, this theory goes, Romney had to junk his timetable and act quickly. Otherwise — if he remained quiet — he would be closing the door to ever becoming president.

A tussle with Romney may not have been the one the Bush camp expected. In fact, very few party insiders thought Romney was interested in yet another run, both because they found the idea preposterous and because Romney had been saying he wasn’t interested (until recently). Some might say that the Bush team hoped to get the jump on New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, but the explanation is much simpler: Bush said he would decide by the end of 2014, and that is what he did.

By sticking to his own timetable (imagine a pol doing precisely what he repeatedly said he would do!), Bush caused ripples in the field.

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First, rather than be treated as an elder statesman and wait to be invited into the race, Romney in rather slapdash fashion plunged in, with little groundwork, staff or foresight. The result has been a backlash as Republicans recoil from the idea of having a plutocratic, two-time loser as their standard-bearer. A more capable set of Romney aides would have seen this coming a mile away. Outside of his immediate circle, the reaction, as the New York Times terms it, runs “from indifference to open hostility.” If Romney is going to run now, he will come in not as a unifying figure but as the object of much scorn.

Second, the Christie camp is trying to make a virtue out of its predicament. A New York Times report says Christie is telling donors to slow down — which seems like the first time in the modern political era a candidate tried not to get early commitments from big donors:

“The feedback I’ve gotten from a lot of donors is that Mitt’s announcement created excitement, and so did [Mike] Huckabee’s announcement, and now that everyone is back from the holidays, it’s creating kind of a pause among a lot of donors,” said Ray Washburne, the departing finance chairman of the Republican National Committee, who has been tapped to lead fund-raising for a Christie campaign. “Why rush?”

Well, you rush for the very reason Romney rushed: Because there is fear that there is no donor pause and Bush isn’t having trouble at all getting commitments for money. The Christie team would have us believe that “Mr. Bush and Mr. Romney are under more pressure than the New Jersey governor to show momentum.” Well, Romney’s effort may be unexpectedly onerous, but Bush’s network seems to have lit up.

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Third, among rank-and-file activists and hard-line conservatives the potential for a choice between Romney and Bush is akin to picking one’s poison. So that, in turn, may have sped up the timetables of candidates to the right of Bush and Romney (well, at least candidates who will argue that they are to the right of Bush and Romney). They, and experienced Republican operatives and activists, understand all too well that the real firebrands — Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and Rand Paul  (R-Ky.) — are long shots at best. (Unlike the mainstream media. they can read early polling and understand that the first precondition for the nomination will be a credible commander in chief.) Therefore, the search is on for a conservative who can unify the party and take down Bush and/or Romney. Voilà — the buzz begins for Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.

It is this space — more acceptable to the grassroots than Bush/Romney/Christie and more serious than Cruz/Paul — that may prove to be the most interesting. The mini-primary in that lane, as we see it, will come down to Walker, Huckabee and Texas Gov. Rick Perry. Each has strengths and weaknesses. Walker is the least known and least experienced in foreign policy but offers a fresh face and a string of electoral victories. Huckabee previously failed to expand beyond the evangelical wing of the party but has run before, is outspoken on Israel and the jihadist threat and has a winning personality. Perry must live down 2012 but has a serious national security outlook.

In short, by merely doing what he promised (deciding by the end of 2014), Bush managed to throw Romney off his timetable, create serious problems for Christie and boost Walker. The irony is that Bush may not have intended to do any of that, and his most compelling opponent now may turn out to be Walker. Stay tuned.

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