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The rocky road to the GOP nomination

By Kevin Bohn, CNN
September 26, 2011 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
GOP candidates Herman Cain, from left, Michele Bachmann, Mitt Romney and Rick Perry chat before the September 12 debate.
GOP candidates Herman Cain, from left, Michele Bachmann, Mitt Romney and Rick Perry chat before the September 12 debate.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Many GOP observers see race moving toward a Romney-Perry showdown
  • Some say Perry is losing momentum, but that it's too soon to count him out
  • Herman Cain's surprise victory in Florida straw poll on Saturday shook things up
  • Rumors persist that some party donors are trying to get a new candidate to enter race

Mackinac Island, Michigan (CNN) -- While the events of the past weekend raised new questions about Texas Gov. Rick Perry and his campaign for the Republican nomination, several consultants and attendees at a key GOP conference here said they think the race is still moving toward a two-man showdown.

Perry has taken the lead in national polls, but his loss in Saturday's Florida Republican straw poll and criticism of his last two debate performances have given former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney a boost, several GOP consultants said.

"Romney still wins the week, for Perry's momentum has been stopped cold," consultant Scott Reed, who is unaffiliated with any of the campaigns, told CNN.

Herman Cain's victory at the Presidential 5 straw poll on Saturday in Florida "shows the party is still hungry for new ideas," Reed said.

There is no question Cain's surprise win shook things up.

"I think it was a surprise to a lot of folks that Herman Cain did as well as he did," Michigan Republican Party Chairman Bobby Schostak said Sunday.

"This vetting of candidates is a tough process. I'm proud of our candidates. I think the whole debate has been good. And they're going to get stronger over time," Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, told "Fox News Sunday."

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Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels told CNN's "State of the Union" that it is still early to count Perry out.

"I think it's way too early to know or to ... pronounce last rites over one performance," Daniels said, when asked about conservative criticism of Perry's defense of in-state tuition help for the children of illegal immigrants, as well as his overall performance to date.

"He hasn't been in it that long," Daniels added. "I'd (cut) him a little slack, give him a little time."

One problem for Perry as he tries to regain some momentum and to draw contrasts between himself and Romney is that there are no debates scheduled for several weeks. The next is a Washington Post/Bloomberg debate on October 11, and CNN and the Western Republican Leadership Conference are sponsoring another on October 18 in Las Vegas.

"Debates are the opportunity to draw distinction," said consultant Doug Heye, a former spokesman for the Republican National Committee. "Perry has to figure out a new strategy."

Some of the attendees at the Mackinac Republican Leadership Conference said the debates did raise questions about Perry.

"I got uncertain about him after watching the debate," Oakland County, Michigan, Commissioner Kathy Crawford told CNN.

For his part, Romney showed a new forcefulness in his message delivered in the conference's keynote speech Saturday, taking aim at President Barack Obama and his economic record while avoiding any talk of Perry.

Crawford said Romney talked persuasively about his values, his beliefs and his goals.

"I think he should just continue and the campaign should just continue to do what they have been doing," Heye said, adding: "He has been running like an incumbent campaign ... and Perry's debate performance has helped Romney in that strategy."

The weekend saw renewed talk that some of the party's donors, who are uncommitted, are pushing New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie or another candidate to get in the race, partly because of continued uneasiness with Romney.

Christie has repeatedly said he won't get into the race. It also is unclear when former vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin will make her decision.

"It demonstrates people are still nervous and sitting on the sidelines," Heye said.

A key barometer for the campaign will come Friday with the end of the third quarter for fundraising, which will help set the narrative of how the candidates are faring.

Some attendees at the conference said they would like to see another candidate get in the race.

"I think it still needs to be open," Michigan state Rep. Sharon Tyler said.

"More would be welcome," conference participant John Hayden said.

But many in the party said the field is set and that there will be never be a perfect candidate.

"I think it is really settled between Mitt and Perry," Crawford, the county commissioner, told CNN. "We are never going to find a perfect candidate."

"There are folks who still want (more) people to run," consultant Heye said. "I think it is more settled because the logistical barriers, the barriers to entry of getting in are extremely high."

Party leaders tried to tamp down talk of unhappiness with the field because it raises uncertainty, although some key donors are still uncommitted and staying on the sidelines.

"There is no such thing as an absolutely perfect candidate. Only one perfect person has walked the earth," Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus told the conference on Saturday.

"I think the campaign season is really starting now," Michigan's Schostak said. "I would say overall people are seeing good choices out there. Maybe that is why Herman Cain did as well as he did. The options are there and good ideas are out there."

You can follow Kevin Bohn on Twitter @KevinBohnCNN.

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