GOP presidential hopefuls jockey for position in a crowded 2016 field

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GOP presidential hopefuls jockey for position in a crowded 2016 field

By Philip Rucker

More than a dozen Republican governors and senators are rushing to line up supporters, pore over policies and map out strategies for the 2016 presidential campaign, concluding that last week’s midterm rout of Democrats shows that the GOP has a strong chance of taking back the White House.

Whereas Democrats are rapidly coalescing around Hillary Rodham Clinton as their standard-bearer, there is no heir apparent on the Republican side. The field is as splintered as the Grand Old Party itself, with stark differences along the lines of ideology, style and background.

“Tuesday night certainly gives the Republicans a sense of hope and momentum, and that fuels enthusiasm, interest and engagement,” said former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty (R), a 2012 presidential candidate. “There’s an enhanced opportunity that will propel more candidates toward 2016.”

For the first time in a generation, there is no singularly dominant contender on the Republican side, leaving a passel of governors, senators and other luminaries jockeying for position.

Some hopefuls sound all but certain to run: Texas Gov. Rick Perry is inviting hundreds of policy heavyweights, financiers and grass-roots activists to Austin for private consultations in December, his final full month in office. Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.) has summoned his advisers, donors and supporters to Washington this week for strategy meetings. Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.) is preparing to push a hard-line conservative agenda on Capitol Hill, beginning this week in the Senate’s lame-duck session.

Intense courtship of major donors has been underway for months. It could take about $100 million — in addition to more from a hefty independent super PAC — for a candidate to secure the nomination, and the eventual nominee must have the capacity to raise $1 billion for the general election. But many big donors have been reticent to pick a horse so soon.

“If somebody called me this week to talk about it, I’d be offended,” said Fred Malek, a prominent GOP donor in Virginia. “I’d say, ‘Hey, for Christ’s sake, we just spent a ton of money helping you get elected and now you’re asking us about the next campaign?’ ”

Ohio Gov. John Kasich established himself as a serious contender after he easily won reelection Tuesday in a quadrennial swing state, as did Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, whose commanding win — his third in four years — strengthened his claim to top-tier status.

A likely rival to Kasich and Walker, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, campaigned as chairman the Republican Governors Association for fellow governors in 23 states over the past two months and is basking in the glow of unexpected blue-state victories. Christie kept a grueling pace on the campaign trail — he visited Illinois eight times and Florida seven times — and came away convinced that with the right economic-results-oriented message, Republicans could make inroads with independent, Hispanic and black voters.

Although Christie mostly has rebounded politically from a major bridge-related scandal a year ago, his temperament remains a source of concern within the party elite. He recently told at a man who was interrupting his speech, “Sit down and shut up.”

John Weaver, who managed his share of outbursts as a top presidential campaign strategist for the often-blunt Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), said of Christie: “I’m not sure you can have 75 town hall meetings in New Hampshire and yell at people every day. People want to talk about the future, they want to be hopeful, they want to know what you’ll do. They don’t want to be yelled at.”

The closest thing the GOP has to a front-runner is former Florida governor Jeb Bush, who has been conferring privately with his family about a run and is developing an agenda on poverty issues and education, two areas where his party has struggled to make its case. Bush does not yet have a map for successfully navigating a crowded primary, in spite of the deep support he enjoys from establishment donors. But because of his stature, he does not feel compelled to rush into the process, according to people close to him.

If Bush passes on a run, that could clear a path for a former protege, Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.). Rubio is gearing up for a tour at the end of the year to promote his latest book, a tome about “economic opportunity,” and is not planning to decide on a presidential run until after the tour.

The GOP’s 2012 vice presidential nominee, Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.) enjoys broad national recognition but says he will take his time weighing whether to seek the top job. “I’m not in a place where I have to scratch and claw to get my name out there,” he said in a recent interview. “I’ve got all the time in the world. I don’t have some calendar with a red circle.”

Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum — two past winners of the Iowa caucuses — are well-liked by evangelicals and could run again. Other hopefuls, including Sen. Rob Portman (Ohio) and Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, want to watch how the field takes shape before throwing their hats into the ring.

The race could draw at least one non-politician as well: Ben Carson, a pediatric neurosurgeon with a fervent following among conservative activists, is leaning into a run by airing a paid one-hour film Sunday tracing his life story.

Haley R. Barbour, a former Mississippi governor who toyed with a presidential run in 2012 before deciding against it, said the emerging field is so strong that he sees no favorite, including Bush if he runs. Barbour said the race may be more muddled than 2012’s contest between establishment favorite Mitt Romney and a cast of conservative challengers.

“There’s too much quality in the field,” Barbour said. “Is it possible this time that you have a social conservative contest and a tea party contest and an establishment contest? I don’t know.”

Barbour predicted that the successful candidate will provide a contrast to President Obama and his acclaimed oratory. “Americans want some straight talk,” he said. “After a while, you get tired of being told the sky is chartreuse.”

Republicans were buoyed by Tuesday night’s romp, but party leaders cautioned against reading too much into the results. Democrats will have an advantage in 2016, when the presidential-year electorate is certain to be much larger and more diverse.

“Election results are like postmodern art: People can look at the same picture and see different things,” Pawlenty said.

Alex Castellanos, a veteran GOP strategist, said “midterms are brake-pedal elections. They’re about the incumbent and a course correction. Presidential-year elections are accelerator elections. They’re about where the country should go. We’ve proven we can win elections that are about saying ‘no,’ but we haven’t proven we can win an election about leading and taking people to a better place.”

With a field so large, many candidates won’t be able to count on consolidated support from their home states. There could be two candidates each from Florida, Ohio, Texas and Wisconsin.

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus told reporters Friday at a breakfast held by the Christian Science Monitor that the party has “a long way to go to be ready for 2016.”

“We are excited and proud of where we’ve come, but I think we’ve got to be about perfect as a national party to win a national cultural vote in this country,” Priebus said. “I think the Democrats can be good and win, but we have to be great.”

A key challenge will be standing up to Clinton, a former secretary of state with two decades of experience on the global stage and a gravitas and celebrity that no Republican hopeful can match. But the presidential primary process is a crucible that elevates winners.

“None of our fruit is ripe yet,” Castellanos said, “but somebody will grow into the presidency.”

Robert Costa and Sean Sullivan contributed to this report.

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