By NANCY BENAC, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Michele Bachmann's moment came and went. Chris Christie was a no-show. Rick Perry faded. Now folks are waiting for the Herman Cain boomlet to go bust.
Could it be that Republican vote rs are done speed-dating and ready to go steady with Mitt Romney?
Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and other what-about-me candidates are hoping that the meh-about-Mitt crowd may still be ready to check out someone else.
It's been that kind of year, after all, with first one candidate and then another capturing the party's attention _ for a time.
Remember when Bachmann surged to victory in the Iowa straw poll? When Christie's big tease that he might join the race captivated the party? When Perry still pulsed with Texas swagger?
Why not check out me next? the long-shot candidates reason.
After all, Santorum has been looking tough lately, Gingrich has turned in some thoughtful debate performances, Ron Paul's got a new ad blitz, and Jon Huntsman's pushing hard in New Hampshire.
And Romney, even with a big bump in his favorability ratings of late, still hasn't been able to generate much enthusiasm among GOP voters.
Republican strategist Mark McKinnon thinks GOP voters will "keep on looking right up until prom night."
"They like shopping around and the alternatives to Romney in theory, but when it gets to be more than just about lunch, the voters so far have been disappointed and let down," McKinnon says.
The idea that Republicans may still be willing to look around is what motivates Santorum, Huntsman and other candidates who are polling in the single digits to head out the door each morning to yet another town hall, Rotary club or fundraiser. They're vigorously challenging the top-tier candidates, sniping at President Barack Obama and keeping the debate stages crowded.
"I don't need a poll to tell us that we're moving up," Huntsman enthuses in New Hampshire.
Gingrich, who's kept his focus trained on what he considers Obama's shortcomings, has a new ad offering himself as "the right candidate at just the right time."
Paul is plowing $2 million into early primary state ads that dismiss his GOP rivals as big spenders beholden to Wall Street.
Santorum, whose tough talk has made him stand out in recent debates, is questioning Cain's credentials as a true conservative. And Perry, hoping to regain his stride, has been particularly aggressive in going after Romney in recent debates.
But Cain, whose popularity surged in recent weeks, isn't ready to cede the spotlight _ even if he's been widely dismissed as just the latest "flavor of the month."
Cain's comeback: "Haagen-Dazs black walnut tastes good all the time."
Huntsman, a former Utah governor, and Santorum, a former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, are the only two GOP candidates who remain unknown to large numbers of Republicans, and that means they've got the widest opening to change opinions.
So it's sort of good news that 53 percent of Republicans don't have an opinion about Huntsman, and 48 percent don't have an opinion about Santorum.
Just about everybody's already got an opinion about Gingrich, by contrast. But the former House speaker has made some headway recently in shifting people from the negative to positive column.
Democratic strategist Bob Shrum, a veteran of multiple presidential campaigns, thinks Cain is destined to fade. The former pizza executive and his 9-9-9 tax plan have been coming under tough scrutiny since voters sent his stock rising.
But Shrum throws cold water on the idea that any of the GOP also-rans will be the next big thing, supplanting Cain.
"There are very limited outcomes here," Shrum says. "If Perry gets a bounce in the next week or two, then he's alive again and he could become a real alternative.
"In the absence of that," says Shrum, "Romney has to be the nominee _ unless the party completely loses its mind."
Associated Press writer Philip Elliott and Deputy Polling Director Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)