By STEVE PEOPLES
HANOVER, N.H. (AP) - A new reality is taking hold in the race for the Republican presidential nomination.
Mitt Romney has assumed a position of newfound strength atop the crowded field, armed with a powerful new ally and a bridge to the tea party activists who have dogged his latest presidential bid before it even began. The resounding endorsement of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, topped by another strong debate performance Tuesday night, is feeding a growing belief that the former Massachusetts governor represents the GOP's best chance at defeating President Barack Obama next fall.
It's not just that Romney has reclaimed the role he once enjoyed as the Republican to beat.
A confluence of factors - a stockpile of cash, strong polls, a disciplined message, an expanding network and decisions by Sarah Palin and Christie not to mount their own White House runs - are fueling an aura of inevitability for a man whose party has been slow to embrace him. Christie may end up being the missing link, but conservatives have been reluctantly warming to a Romney candidacy for weeks.
Christie, the unapologetic New Jersey leader, sent a clear message Tuesday to the tea party supporters who rallied behind his own presidential bid until one week ago.
"I think he gives us our best opportunity to beat President Obama," Christie said, adding a specific warning to stay away from Romney's top rival, Texas Gov. Rick Perry. "I felt Gov. Romney's a better candidate, and I think he'd make a better president."
The Romney campaign gambled that news of Christie's endorsement would overshadow a debate that did not appear on any major television networks. That may have been the case. But the debate offered another set of reasons to believe Romney is on top.
The candidates largely ignored Perry, who was criticized so fiercely during his first debate he complained of feeling like a piInata. Instead, the White House hopefuls on Tuesday aimed repeated attacks at Romney, a sign of respect of sorts in a political world that often rewards strength with negative attention.
While Perry stumbled under the weight of his own brief front-runner status, Romney consistently used tough questions to showcase strength.
There was perhaps no better example than an exchange between Romney and businessman Herman Cain, who has climbed to second place in national polls. When Cain suggested Romney's economic plan was too complicated, a poised Romney offered this response: "Herman, I have had the experience in my life of taking on some tough problems. And I must admit that simple answers are always very helpful but oftentimes inadequate."
Cain didn't score any political points on the exchange. And Cain, like Romney's six other rivals, struggled to distinguish themselves all night.
Perry was overshadowed.
His decline - as reflected in recent polling in early voting states and across the nation - was evidenced by the debate organizers' decision to seat Romney next to Cain, a seat Perry previously occupied. And when given opportunities, Perry did little to inspire confidence among wavering supporters.
A sluggish start gave way to tentative answers at times: "What we need to be focused on in this country today is not whether or not we are going to have this policy or that policy. What we need to be focused on is how we get American working again," Perry said during a discussion about trade policy with China.
Romney also played the part of front-runner Tuesday night, muting recent criticism he levied against Perry's immigration policies. Instead, he targeted his most passionate attacks at the Democratic president. When given an opportunity to ask another candidate a question, he teed up a softball for Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, among those most likely to siphon support from Perry.
And at times, Romney offered a more moderate tone than his GOP rivals. He defended the 2008 Wall Street bailout and said he could work with "good Democrats." Such movement to the center on some issues helps reinforce the notion he can win over independent voters in next year's general election against Obama. But it also carries risks. Romney may be starting to win over reluctant conservatives, but polls suggest they're not yet completely on board. And the path to the Republican nomination goes through several states where the GOP's hardline conservatives carry significant clout.
The best news for Romney on Tuesday, however, did not come on the debate stage.
It was five hours before the debate began, when Christie single-handedly took on what may be Romney's greatest policy challenge: the Massachusetts health-care plan he signed into law as governor that is credited as inspiration for Obama's health-care overhaul. Romney has been forced to defend the policy in nearly every debate and campaign appearance this year.
Christie boomed that it was "completely intellectually dishonest" to compare the Massachusetts plan with Obama's plan. "I'm proud of him for doing what he thought was right," Christie said with Romney at his side.
The shifting dynamic and impact of Christie's endorsement at this moment in the race was not lost on Alan Glassman, chairman of the Belknap County Republican Committee in New Hampshire.
"It's huge," said Glassman, who hasn't yet settled on a candidate in the presidential race. "Christie has a following that covers the spectrum. This sends a message across the Republican Party, from the moderates to the superconservatives, that this is the guy."
The Romney campaign, meanwhile, could barely contain its giddiness Tuesday. But publicly they downplayed the impact of the latest events.
"I don't want to draw any grand conclusions," top Romney strategist Eric Fehrnstrom said. "Any campaign is a roller coaster ride."
--- EDITOR'S NOTE - Peoples covers New England politics and the New Hampshire presidential primary for The Associated Press.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)