- Associated Press - Thursday, October 6, 2011

WASHINGTON (AP) — The GOP presidential field apparently set, Republican primary voters are likely facing a choice between an experienced, establishment candidate in Mitt Romney and an insurgent presidential campaign novice in Rick Perry.

With three months until voting begins, that’s the dynamic that’s starting to emerge now that former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie have said they won’t run for president in 2012.

Their decisions — announced over the past two days — mean it’s all but certain that the Republican nominee will come from the current crop of candidates despite earlier hunger within the party for more options.

For now at least, the race is focused on Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who lost the Republican nomination in 2008 and in recent days has started to shore up support among long-time party leaders, and Perry, the Texas governor who has emerged as the top challenger despite a rocky few weeks that have stoked concerns among GOP elders about whether he’s ready to take on President Barack Obama.

The dynamic is familiar.

** FILE ** Republican presidential candidate Texas Gov. Rick Perry answers a question as Republican presidential candidate former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney listens during a Republican presidential candidate debate at the Reagan Library Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2011, in Simi Valley, Calif. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
** FILE ** Republican presidential candidate Texas Gov. Rick Perry answers a ... more >

In 2000, Arizona Sen. John McCain mounted an unexpectedly fierce challenge to George W. Bush, who had the backing of much of the Republican establishment. McCain won the New Hampshire primary but lost the nomination to Bush.

Eight years later, McCain ran for the party nomination a second time and, early on, struck a tone of inevitability and got many party leaders to support his bid. He flamed out for a while and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who hadn’t run for president before, came out of nowhere to win the Iowa caucuses. Huckabee briefly emerged as the alternative to McCain, but the Arizona senator eventually won the nomination.

This year, a segment of the party’s conservative base has been eagerly rallying around candidate after candidate without finding a favorite. They flirted with real estate mogul Donald Trump; they backed Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann in a key test vote in Iowa; now they’re driving a surge in polling for businessman Herman Cain.

Christie’s backers, who include many party elders and long-time donors, and Palin’s ardent fans had been waiting to see whether either of them would run.

Now that neither of them are, those supporters are free to choose sides. It’s unclear where they will turn.

In bowing out of a bid, Palin, whose unconventional style and sheer celebrity would have been an unpredictable but unquestionable force in the primary season, made clear she still would try to have a voice in the 2012 race.

“You don’t need a title to make a difference in this country,” Palin said Wednesday. She declined to endorse anyone but indicated she would back the eventual nominee.

It’s unclear whether her backers will heed her advice. Many turned to social networking sites to assail her decision.

Romney, meanwhile, is pursuing Christie’s supporters, with some success. Several high-profile figures backed him after Christie’s announcement Tuesday, including New York financier John Catsimatidis and Home Depot co-founder Ken Langone.

Romney has a strong case to make. He has national name recognition and a top-notch national campaign staff. He has a national fundraising network. His weaknesses already have been vetted and he has been able to dispatch questions about them. He’s built a strong campaign in New Hampshire and is quietly organizing in Iowa, where he learned from the mistakes he made last time and is working to keep expectations low. He’s racking up endorsements in key states like Florida. And while he’s had trouble winning over the restless conservative base, he can argue that his even-keeled campaign can take its well-honed economic message and use it to beat Obama.

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