Opinion: GOP’s time to choose

Back to the grind, Republican primary voters. 

It isn’t over till the fat governor sings. But as suspected, the rollicking Republican roller-coaster ride came to an end Tuesday — sorry, Herman Cain — when New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie displayed more maturity, seriousness and humility than presidential candidates typically possess and said he wasn’t ready to mount a White House run — or even pretend to while conducting a book tour. 

Though the GOP remains riven by the clash between Tea Party purity and a path to victory that can win over swing voters, the calendar now demands Republicans return from their three years in the wilderness and choose the party’s direction, as well as its leader. No more belly-aching — it’s time to belly up to the bar and swallow some medicine. 

As Cain continues to vacuum up Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s support in new polls, Rep. Michele BachmannMichele Marie BachmannBachmann won't run for Franken's Senate seat because she did not hear a 'call from God' Billboard from ‘God’ tells Michele Bachmann not to run for Senate Pawlenty opts out of Senate run in Minnesota MORE (Minn.) sinks and Rep. Ron Paul (Texas) stays stuck at 8 percent, restive conservatives admire former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s (Ga.) debate performances but little else about him, just like they respect former Sen. Rick Santorum’s (Pa.) conviction but generally ignore him. They gnash their teeth but remain divided. They had once hoped to rally behind someone — Sen. Jim DeMint (S.C.), former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpAccuser says Trump should be afraid of the truth Woman behind pro-Trump Facebook page denies being influenced by Russians Shulkin says he has White House approval to root out 'subversion' at VA MORE, Bachmann, Perry and now Cain. It isn’t working.

Meanwhile, establishment Republicans have literally prayed for the prospect of Rep. Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanRepublicans are avoiding gun talks as election looms The Hill's 12:30 Report Flake to try to force vote on DACA stopgap plan MORE (Wis.), Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush or Christie to swoop in and rescue them from the stubbornly flawed field. Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty couldn’t land a punch and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman was the late bloomer who simply never bloomed. They even tried Perry on for size, but concluded from his disastrous debate responses that he couldn’t go the distance.

As each candidate flames out, the race ricochets back to the question of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney — and from the Tea Party activist to the traditional country-club Republican, they have all resoundingly said no. Five years into running for president, Romney is a front-runner who can’t break 30 percent in polls.

But someday soon Republicans must reverse course and take a risk with Perry or resign themselves to their dreaded Most Electable. Cain isn’t campaigning in any early primary states, too busy on the set of “The View,” but he sure is having fun. The choice now is to nominate Perry or Romney, period.

Everyone will speculate that Romney must grow his support, change his ways again, somehow become more popular in order for voters to unite behind him. After all, Perry is fighting his way back into contention, with his $17 million quarterly haul, and promises to come prepared to future debates. 

But with the fantasy behind them, Republicans are more likely to eventually coalesce, albeit it begrudgingly, behind Romney. In the days and weeks to come Romney is likely to capture the momentum with endorsements and dollars long sitting on the sideline. 

If Perry manages a comeback, the nominating contest could last a long time. But Romney will have the money, and his team is counting on slow and steady winning the race. In fact, a long slog doesn’t bother the smiley Romney; this is actually exactly the way he envisioned it all along. When asked last week in an appearance on “Morning Joe” if he gets frustrated by the lack of excitement in his candidacy, Romney smiled (of course) and said his strategy is to carry on and “hope the other guys stumble.” 

Looks like it’s working so far.

Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.