With New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie forgoing a run for the Republican presidential nomination, two questions hold the key to the future of the GOP race: Can Mitt Romney finally expand his support within the party, and can Rick Perry bounce back?

Christie’s announcement Tuesday that he will not join the race, while not unexpected, probably ended a long period in which many Republicans spent as much time dreaming about a candidate who wasn’t in the contest as focusing on those who were. Only former Alaska governor Sarah Palin remains as a possible late entrant, and time and interest in her candidacy are quickly running out.

“The campaign just got a whole lot more real,” said Todd Harris, a Republican strategist. “No more hypotheticals about this or that person swooping in to save the day. The field is set, and it’s not going to change. The race has been frozen in place while everyone waited to see what Christie was going to do. Now we know, and it’s time to resume the clock.”

The comings and goings of potential candidates have obscured what has long been the reality of the Republican race: that it has been two contests in one. The first was all about Romney and whether he could persuade a reluctant party to embrace his candidacy. So far he hasn’t. That highlights the importance of the second contest, which is the campaign among the other candidates to become the principal alternative to Romney.

The courtship of Christie spoke to a wider problem for the Republicans. At a time when they view President Obama as extremely vulnerable, they are caught up in an internal debate about which candidate most expresses the heart and soul of conservatism and whether that person is best equipped to win a general election.

That has produced fluctuations in support for contenders who appear to speak for the tea party activists, starting with Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.), followed by Perry and more recently by businessman Herman Cain. But the gyrating polls highlight the degree to which the Republican race, though just three months away from the first votes in Iowa and New Hampshire, is still taking shape.

Christie’s decision was welcome news for Romney and Perry. Romney will now have a fresh opportunity to consolidate support among established Republicans who have been keeping their options open. The former Massachusetts governor also will have a freer hand to pursue some major fundraisers who have stayed on the sidelines looking for a seemingly more appealing candidate.

There was at least one immediate dividend on Tuesday. Ken Langone, a Home Depot co-founder and GOP fundraiser who was the prime mover behind the effort to persuade Christie to run, signed up with Romney. Also joining was Georgette Mosbacher, longtime GOP fundraiser and co-chairman of the Republican National Committee’s finance committee. Others appear ready to jump aboard in the next few days.

Perry’s campaign, which started quickly, has hit a rough patch. He has fallen into a tie for second place with Cain in the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll. Christie’s decision offers the Texas governor a better chance to regroup and emerge as Romney’s main challenger once the primaries and caucuses begin in January and the voters start to winnow the field.

Romney’s challenge is evident from the new Post-ABC poll. Although nearly half of Perry’s support evaporated over the past month, none of it went to Romney. Cain’s surge was built entirely on Perry’s swoon. Romney’s support remained steady, at about a quarter of the Republican electorate, which is hardly formidable for someone who has run before and entered the race as the nominal favorite.

Romney’s support has not risen despite a series of strong debates in which he aggressively challenged Perry on Social Security and immigration. Although he has won praise from some Republicans, those plaudits have not translated into stronger support in opinion polls.

Stuart Stevens, Romney’s chief strategist, said those numbers obscure evidence in the campaign’s research that the former Massachusetts governor is steadily building up his candidacy. He said that Republican voters have a more favorable impression of Romney now than they did earlier and that his support is more solid than it was.

“That’s what matters,” he said. “It’s not vote share, it’s what’s under that. People don’t have to make up their minds now.”

Dave Carney, Perry’s chief strategist, said Romney’s inability to pull away from the field, after running in 2008 and beginning this campaign with all the advantages that experience gives him, suggests that the contest is wide open. As such, Carney said he does not consider the Christie decision a major advantage for Romney.

Carney acknowledged that the Perry campaign must improve its performance. “We have to work at getting better,” he said. “We have to get better prepared. We’re not blind to that fact, but this is a long campaign. . . . We’re not interested in winning the media war; we’re interested in winning elections. That has a whole different timetable.”

That was his way of dismissing the latest polls that have shown Perry losing support after three debates in which his performance drew, at best, mixed reviews, and his most recent appearance, in Orlando, brought harsh criticism from conservative commentators.

But several Republicans said Tuesday that, given the state of the race, it would be foolish to write off Perry because of his recent problems. “Nobody has a mortal wound, that’s for sure,” said Ed Rogers, a GOP strategist.

Christie’s appearance Tuesday underscored the attributes that prompted some Republicans to encourage him to run. He was loose, direct, blunt and humorous as he fielded questions from the Trenton media corps and others.

He said that he always opposed running in 2012 but that after many people urged him to do so, he had seriously reconsidered.

“In the end, what I’ve always felt was the right decision remains the right decision today,” he said. “Now is not my time. I have a commitment to New Jersey that I simply will not abandon.”

During the question-and-answer period, Christie excoriated Obama. “Overall, he’s failed the American people because he’s failed that absolute litmus test to be president of the United States, which is to lead and decide.”

Christie said he wasn’t ready to endorse any of the GOP candidates and urged them to step up to the real problems facing the country. Among those he cited were debt and deficits, a tax code that inhibits economic growth, the need to move from an entitlement society to an opportunity society, and the desirability of putting the nation’s house in order as an example for the rest of the world.

“I think that the debate has to get on to the really important issues,” he said of the dialogue from the Republican contenders.

Romney and Perry intend to do more on that front this fall as they seek to flesh out their policy positions. Romney has waited until now to do so, in part because his advisers think voters will be paying more attention. Perry has waited because he is consulting with outside experts and putting together policy positions that he did not have to have as a governor.

Whether any of the candidates will rise to meet the expectations of those who have been looking for the perfect nominee is doubtful. But the Republican race is now more grounded in reality, with the likelihood of a late entrant significantly diminished. That gives the major candidates all the more incentive to demonstrate why they should lead the party against Obama.

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