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Chris Christie and GOP's quest for a perfect candidate: Time to end it?

The pining continues for someone 'better' than the Republicans already in the presidential race, hence the renewed interest in Gov. Chris Christie. Angst over a 'flawed' field is nothing new.

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New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie speaks during the Perspectives on Leadership Forum at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif., on Tuesday. Gov. Christie warned Tuesday that America's promise is being menaced from within, as a troubled US economy, shaky leadership and political gridlock diminish the nation's ability to solve its problems.

Jae C. Hong/AP

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The Chris Christie tease continues. The governor of New Jersey insists he’s not running for president, yet on Monday night he gave a campaign-like speech at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California that leaves the door open a crack. All the attention is flattering, he admits. Perhaps that’s why he keeps acting like a maybe-possibly-sort-of candidate even as he insists he’s not running.

Chances are, Governor Christie won’t run. His own brother says he’s not running. And time is short, if not already past. In the eyes of many political operatives, it is already too late to put together a credible national operation. Yet elite Republicans, like Weekly Standard editor William Kristol and some wealthy donors, continue to pine for him.

Doesn’t all this 11th-hour yearning for Christie – for someone “better” than the nearly dozen Republican candidates already in the race – harm the eventual nominee, assuming it’s one of those folks already in? If former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney or Texas Gov. Rick Perry winds up as the nominee, won’t it look as if the party “settled”? Aren’t people idealizing Christie – and the other major Republicans who opted out, like Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, and House Budget chairman Paul Ryan – just a tad?

Some Republicans are pleading for perspective. Peter Wehner, a former political adviser in the George W. Bush White House, says that, indeed, this is a “crucial moment, and a crucial election” and voters should want the GOP’s finest to step forward.

But “at the same time, there is a tendency among some commentators (myself included) to view those who have not entered the field as figures of extraordinary and enduring strength and skill,” Mr. Wehner writes at CommentaryMagazine.com. “It often seems that way, right up to the moment when a candidate enters the race, at which point they immediately become diminished, flawed, and mortal.”

Governor Perry probably knows the feeling well. He was not planning to run for president, then all those other GOP heavy-hitters opted out, and he jumped in. Now, after a few weeks on the trail, Perry has floundered in the debates, irritated his base by calling those who oppose in-state tuition for illegal immigrants heartless, and raised questions about his electability.

Let’s cut the declared candidates some slack, says Wehner. “The individuals who have stepped forward and placed themselves squarely in the line of fire deserve a tip of the hat – and maybe, from time to time, a measure of grace and understanding,” he writes.

The perfect candidate is a myth, says Julian Zelizer, a presidential historian at Princeton University. “In the primary process, you see the flaws,” he says. “Then the question is, who can overcome their flaws and run a good campaign.”

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So no, he says, Mr. Romney isn’t mortally wounded by this idea that the GOP would be “settling” to have him as their nominee. If he gets the nod, the race will be between Romney and his flaws (and virtues) and President Obama’s flaws (and virtues).

This angsting over a “flawed field” is nothing new. Past Democratic fields have been called the “10 Little Indians” and the “Seven Dwarfs.” Even President Reagan, when he was still candidate Reagan, had a hard time convincing Americans that he wasn’t too far to the right and ill-informed to be elected president.

If Christie were to take the bait and get in, he would quickly come down to earth. A national discussion would ensue over whether someone with his health issues, including his extra-large girth, could handle the demands of the modern-day presidency. His record as a red governor in a blue state would come under intense scrutiny, as it has already started to. Conservative tea party activists have already found multiple issues that cause alarm over Christie. His blunt-talking, in-your-face style – now heralded as refreshing and authentic – might rub some voters the wrong way.

After early grumbling, Republican voters themselves have shown growing satisfaction with their field of candidates, polls show. So all the hand-wringing by party elites is probably for naught. In a matter of weeks, deadlines will arrive for getting on the ballots in states that hold the earliest primaries. At that point, it really will be too late, and this story line will fade.

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