WASHINGTON -- 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 voters 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 Romney crowd might 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, a Minnesota congresswoman, surged to victory in the Iowa straw poll? When hints that Christie, the New Jersey governor, might join the race captivated the party? When Perry still pulsed with Texas swagger? Why not check me out next, the long-shot candidates reason.

After all, Santorum, a former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, has been looking tough lately, former House Speaker Gingrich has turned in some thoughtful debate performances, Texas' Rep. Ron Paul's got a new ad blitz and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman's pushing hard in New Hampshire.

And Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, 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 . . . but when it gets to be more than just about lunch, the voters so far have been disappointed and let down," he said.

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.

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 said 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, the Texas governor, hoping to regain his stride, has been particularly aggressive in going after Romney in recent debates.

But Cain, a businessman 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" and has had to abandon a portion of his 9-9-9 tax plan.

Cain's comeback: "Haagen-Dazs black walnut tastes good all the time."

Huntsman and Santorum 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.

But Democratic strategist Bob 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 said. "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, Romney has to be the nominee -- unless the party completely loses its mind."

Search at Heuermann's home continues … Rangers preview … Rock of Ages Credit: Newsday

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Search at Heuermann's home continues … Rangers preview … Rock of Ages Credit: Newsday

Updated 2 minutes ago School budget vote ... Gilgo probe continues ... SBU students arraigned ... Overnight at the wineries

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