At about the very moment Gov. Chris Christie was saying that “now is not my time,” a new poll surfaced that demonstrated what might have been. Echoing Marlon Brando under a headline of “CHRISTIE COULDA’ BEEN A CONTENDER,” a Quinnipiac University survey found that the New Jersey governor would have started with a share of the top spot in the GOP field and defeated President Obama in a head-to-head matchup.

Woulda, coulda, shoulda.

We’ll never know if Christie had the right stuff to go all the way, but his decision not to try is a disappointment. The clamor for him illustrated the belief among many voters, not all of them Republican, that America can do better than Obama or Mitt Romney, Rick Perry, Herman Cain and the rest of the GOP gaggle.

Christie would have been a double-edged sword in some ways, but his passion and center-right reforms in deep-blue New Jersey were an attractive profile, especially for the independent and swing voters who decide elections. As he showed again yesterday, he is refreshingly blunt and has the record to back up the tough talk.

In fact, even as he was bowing out, he made the case against Obama better than the GOP candidates have so far. And he did it in a few off-the-cuff comments late in his press conference.

“There’s no substitute for knowing how to lead,” he said in response to a question. “Everything else you can be taught. You can’t be taught how to lead and make decisions.”

He went on to say that overall, Obama has “failed the American people because he’s failed that absolute litmus test to be president of the United States, and that’s to know how to lead and decide, and he hasn’t done that.”

A minute later, he gave a quick critique of the Republican candidates. He cited the litany of the most serious problems -- debt, deficit, tax code, America’s standing in the world, entitlements, opportunity -- and said these are the things that should be driving the campaign.

But “I don’t think they’re doing that yet,” he said of the GOP candidates.

Christie is spot on with both points. The economy is dead, scandals are rising like floodwaters around the White House, and Obama is happy to lead from behind at home and abroad, yet nobody in the GOP effectively calls him on it. Instead, the campaign has been reduced to a series of stilted debates, which by nature are heavily structured and scripted.

Romney has survived by playing it safe, Perry has been defined by his stumbling performances and Cain is rising because he’s funny and sharp. None has more than 25 percent support, and their attacks on each other are a zero-sum game that makes them all look small.

Meanwhile, the national mood grows more sour as the jobs picture remains gloomy and the stock market behaves like a yo-yo. Most days, the wheels seem to be coming off the world.

America needs a leader -- someone who has the courage to lead from the front, get things done and bring the nation together. Maybe we should advertise on a milk carton for one, because so far, a leader of the pack is missing.

Michael Goodwin is a Fox News contributor and New York Post columnist. To continue reading his column on other topics, including Roseann Barr, click here.