They represent the road not taken—and it’s now clear that any one of them could have been a contender.

But instead, the sideshow has taken over the Big Tent. And the loss is the country’s, as well as the Republican Party’s.

After all, Chris Christie is still winning fans with his engaging, no-BS executive attitude. But far more than style, it’s his accomplishments over two years in office that create converts—closing a multi-billion-dollar budget gap without raising taxes and taking on the teachers’ union over educational reform while reining in pension obligations.

The New Jersey governor is comfortable with confrontation but can reach across the aisle to pass legislation in the Democratic-dominated state legislature. And while some conservatives groused at his appointment of a Muslim judge, Christie has a unique ability to appeal to the Tea Party, as well as the Northeast establishment. In a speech at the Reagan Library, Christie condemned “a Congress at war with itself because they are unwilling to leave campaign-style politics at the Capitol’s door,” causing Rush Limbaugh to mutter that Christie was starting to sound like John McCain.

Christie ultimately decided to back Romney, bowing to the GOP’s time-honored principle of primogeniture, but this may have been the moment for Christie’s message.