A pattern of disappointment emerges in the Republican presidential primary

It’s been the recurring theme in the race for the GOP presidential nomination: A candidate enters with a splash, then quickly fizzles, leaving Republicans clamoring for a new white knight to hurtle them into the White House.

It happened with former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty. It happened with Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.). Now it’s happening with Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who is fending off freefall after a  meteoric rise to frontrunner status.

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A new round of calls for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to enter the race just months before Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses is feeding the narrative that Republicans are underwhelmed by their choices, although conservatives insist that the public complaints won’t hurt the eventual nominee’s chances to defeat President Obama.

While Obama is raising money in California and campaigning against GOP obstructionism in Congress, many Republicans are openly musing about if only Christie, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin or Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels would get in the race. Republicans in Florida bucked their party’s two front-runners on Saturday, with businessman Herman Cain, who polls nationally in the single digits, winning more votes than Perry and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney combined.

“Everyone’s willing to settle for Mitt Romney, but nobody wants to settle for Mitt Romney,” said Erick Erickson, the publisher of the conservative blog RedState.org.

Erickson is among those whose early enthusiasm for Perry was dampened by the Texas governor’s weak performance in two recent debates.

“I suspect he has about three to four more weeks and another debate performance, and if he doesn’t get that right, we’ll see some real angst among conservatives,” Erickson said.

Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak, who is not working for Perry but is supporting his campaign, acknowledged that the storyline about Perry’s recent stumbles had become tough to break, and that the perception that Republicans still had their eyes trained on the horizon would bode poorly for the GOP in the general election.

“Sure, but the converse to that is if one person was running away with it, that person would be receiving all the fire from the Democrats anyway,” he said. “They’re always going to find something to go after.”

With Palin’s unfavorable rating around two-thirds, most of the almost rabid appeals for new entrants has been focused on Christie, who has wowed Republicans during his first two years in office by effectively and aggressively taking on teachers unions and special interests.

“Just wait until the country discovers that Texas Gov. Rick Perry is an empty pair of alligator boots with a grade-school understanding of economics who wants to appoint the Holy Spirit as head of Homeland Security. The Batphone on Christie’s desk will start blinking again,” editorial writer Kevin Manahan of the Newark, N.J.-based Star-Ledger predicted in August, the week after Perry declared.

Christie has said he will not run in 2012 more times than anyone can count, but the calls keep coming. Numerous reports in recent days suggested that GOP donors had at long last persuaded Christie to reconsider, although aides publicly and privately maintain that nothing has changed.

In late May, a group of GOP donors from Iowa traveled to New Jersey for an audience with Christie, where they told Christie that his was a once-in-the-century opportunity to save the country from financial ruin.

“It’s not a matter of disliking the others in the field, but in putting forward your best person you could ever think of,” Gary Kirke, the Des Moines, Iowa, businessman who organized the trip, told The Hill on Monday.

In fact, either Perry or Romney, who are considered the front-runners, could be a strong challenger to Obama. Romney has led the president in some polls, and Perry has been within the margin of error in other matchups.

Even if Republicans aren’t sneering at their current batch of candidates, the fact that they don’t consider any of them to be ideal sends an ominous signal about what kind of enthusiasm there will be for the GOP nominee come November 2012. And Democrats will be able to make the case to voters that Republicans aren’t even fully behind their own candidate.

But that proposition might be business as usual, said Mark McKinnon, a GOP strategist and former adviser to President George W. Bush and to Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) 2008 presidential campaign.

“The fields are always flawed. There is never a perfect candidate,” he said. “As their nomination becomes inevitable … suddenly they become much less flawed and much more acceptable.”