The GOP may have to return to the Bush leagues.

Here’s why.

In presidential nominating contests, the Republican establishment has always won out—from the first Bush, to the tried but tired Dole, to W., then McCain, and most recently Romney, who nonetheless had to labor mightily to emerge from the weakest field of candidates in either party, ever. Really, Rick Santorum? Although casino mogul Sheldon Adelson’s millions of misspent dollars propped him up, Romney, with even greater resources from the party’s long-reigning plutocrats, ground Santorum down over time and along the way dispatched the unthinkable Newt Gingrich. The journey was excruciatingly long for the establishmentarians and cost them more than they ever anticipated. But in the end, they had their way.

And they weren’t wrong. Sure, as the unskewed polls unraveled, Mr. 47 Percent lost—with just 47 percent of the popular vote. It was a fitting end; but any of the other GOP hopefuls, except for the forgotten and mortally moderate Jon Huntsman, would have turned in a far bleaker performance.

In the aftermath, those who traditionally dominate the Republican nominating process realize they are weaker than before and are therefore anxious. So from Karl Rove to the Romney big givers, they swiftly and all but explicitly coalesced around Chris Christie, the New Jersey governor with apparent crossover appeal. Then his prospects crashed into the pylons of the George Washington Bridge; he’s mired in investigations—despite being “cleared” in a self-appointed and self-serving inquiry conducted by a law firm which, during its exertions, donated $10,000 to the Republican Governors Association headed by…Christie. And there may be more to come—as there was in a compelling New Yorker profile by Ryan Lizza, who deconstructed the benign, bipartisan Christie of Hurricane Sandy and revealed a two-faced wheeler-dealer in the smelly interstices of Jersey politics.

Christie is also proving to be an awkward national candidate. At Adelson’s recent cattle call in Las Vegas, the governor called the West Bank “occupied territories”—accurate enough, but it’s Politics 101, on the first page of the briefing book, to avoid that term with Adelson and his hard-line crowd. Christie cravenly apologized, but the president of the Zionist Organization of America promptly responded: “I don’t believe his apology for one second.”

When things go bad, they generally get worse. And of such stuff as this nominees are not made. Home Depot billionaire Ken Langone avers that he’s “absolutely” sticking with Christie. But more and more, as a Republican consultant told me, the gathering mood across the establishment is that “the big boy is finished”: He may run, but he won’t catch the prize. He handed it in at the toll plaza on the bridge approach. And former New Jersey governor and Christie mentor Tom Kean says that if “he’s just telling a lie to everybody”—about what he knew and when—“then he’s finished. As governor, too.”

For the GOP, all this raises a perennial question from the movie New Jack City: “Who else you got?” Perhaps unbelievably, Romney has left his exiled luxury in La Jolla and “returned to the political stage,” dispensing campaign largesse and his own dubious apparition on Republican hopefuls. But the most he can hope for is modest relevance. As someone who has been involved with him put it privately, “A Romney rerun? I’m afraid he would ride Rafalca, the dancing horse, again”—his wife’s dressage entry in the 2012 London Olympics.

The Republicans already stumping hard in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina appeal to the Tea Partiers, but they are anything but the establishment’s cup of tea. To one degree or another, they’re firebrands on social issues, from women’s rights to gay rights to immigration reform. They would intensify the alienation of Hispanics and younger voters—and entrench a permanent GOP minority in presidential politics. Each of them has distinctive and debilitating flaws in the eyes of Republican power brokers.

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