Michael Barone‘s latest Washington Examiner article probes the fact that Republicans are still searching for the best candidate to challenge President Obama in 2012. The latest GOP debate Thursday night didn’t help resolve the issue.

If [Romney] overtakes Perry in the polls — a likely possibility after the Texan’s stumbling performance — he will likely become the pinata for the rest of the field, a role he figured to play before Perry entered the race.

None of the other seven candidates on the stage made a convincing case for advancing to the top tier. The closest was Rick Santorum, who was eloquent and knowledgeable on foreign policy. But his answer on gays in the military was cringe-inducing for people on all sides of the issue. …

… Pundits are fixated on designating a front-runner, but the polls in this race — witness Romney’s rise and fall and Perry’s rise — have all the solidity of cotton candy. Bachmann’s numbers peaked in July, Herman Cain’s in June, Ron Paul’s and Newt Gingrich’s in May — and not at high levels. Santorum’s haven’t peaked at all.

Could another candidate give a better performance than Perry and deliver more sustainable responses than Romney? To judge from their performances in various public and private venues the answer is yes for Mitch Daniels, Paul Ryan and Chris Christie.

Each has taken himself out of the race. Each still has time to get in. Most voters are ready to reject Barack Obama. But not necessarily for one of those on the stage Thursday night.