WASHINGTON — As Republicans look ahead to the 2016 presidential race, they are hoping to avoid the kind of chaotic and protracted nominating battle that dismayed party elders and damaged the eventual candidacy of Mitt Romney.
That, however, could be a hard thing to prevent.
The party is divided and in turmoil, with a civil war raging between its establishment and insurgent factions. For the first time in memory, there is no obvious early favorite – no candidate with wide appeal who has run before, no incumbent president or vice president, no clear establishment pick.
Meanwhile, an enormous number of potential contenders are looking at the race, including, perhaps, a return of virtually everyone who ran in 2012. Come this time next year, 15 or more of them could be traveling the early primary states, jockeying for attention and money.
The Republican National Committee is doing its best to prevent a replay of the spectacle of 2012, which saw one candidate after another pop up as a mortal threat to the front-runner. Late last month, the RNC began putting into place rules that would shorten the primary season and make it begin later.
This is a party that used to pick its standard-bearer in a relatively orderly fashion, notwithstanding the occasional slip on the ice of Iowa or New Hampshire. “Typically, Republicans have a front-runner, and the front-runner wins,” said Haley Barbour, the former Mississippi governor and RNC chairman.
But two years out from the Iowa caucuses, the Democrats are the ones who are closing ranks. The latest Washington Post/ABC News poll shows presumed contender Hillary Rodham Clinton already holding the support of 73 percent of those likely to vote Democratic. In the poll’s 30-year history, no one has ever had such a strong grip on the party at this early point.
On the Republican side, things are so wide open that even 2012 nominee Romney is getting another look, although the former Massachusetts governor himself recently told The New York Times: “Oh, no, no, no. No, no, no, no, no. No, no, no.”
That, apparently, was not definite enough for some.
“I’ve had one or two semi-serious conversations about whether it could happen,” said Lanhee Chen, Romney’s former policy adviser, who noted the recent release of a documentary showing Romney in a new light. “The overwhelming consensus is ‘probably not,’ but it’s not completely far-fetched.”
Romney’s running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, is expected to stay in the House in the coming years, with the chairmanship of the Ways and Means Committee or the speaker’s gavel on the horizon. But he told CNN: “I’m not closing my options.”
Nor, it seems, is anyone else.
“It’s certainly something I’m looking at very seriously,” said real estate developer and reality TV star Donald Trump. “I think we’re going to have an interesting field, with a lot of people moving up and down in the race.”
Trump added: “I’m a popular guy because I have popular ideas, talking about how China is ripping us off and about how Obamacare is a disaster. Those are the big issues where people want to see leadership.”
For all the uncertainty the Republicans face, there is also plenty of opportunity – if they can find the right champion. History suggests that after giving one party two terms in the White House, voters are usually restless for a change.
And if the midterm elections go badly for the Democrats, the political landscape may suddenly look much more favorable for the opposition party – potentially setting off a stampede of candidates to claim the GOP nomination for what would look like a thoroughly winnable race.
The next presidential election is expected to be a testing ground for a new generation of Republican leaders – senators might include the charismatic Marco Rubio of Florida, libertarian Rand Paul of Kentucky and tea party gladiator Ted Cruz of Texas, and much-mentioned governors such as Chris Christie of New Jersey, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, John Kasich of Ohio, Rick Snyder of Michigan, Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Mike Pence of Indiana.
Then there is the potential for a parade of formers and also-rans. Former Texas governor Rick Perry is preparing for another race, a do-over after his 2012 debacle. Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, who took the Iowa caucuses in 2008, has said he is thinking about it, too, as is former senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, who won Iowa in 2012.
Asked whether he has ruled out another run, former House speaker Newt Gingrich – busy these days with a CNN show and selling a new book – was hardly Shermanesque. “Probably,” he replied by email.
Even former pizza magnate Herman Cain, who briefly led the GOP primary polls in late 2011, is keeping the door open.
“As for me, I would never say never,” Cain said. “People call up my radio show every day asking me to consider running again. Nobody from the establishment is calling, but there are some people in the grass roots who are reaching out saying, ‘Herman, get back in.’ “
Rounding out the field may be a battalion of backbench congressmen, tea party darlings and conservative media stars, including Maryland neurosurgeon Ben Carson, whose fiery speech at the National Prayer Breakfast last year made him a conservative celebrity, and John Bolton, the former U.N. ambassador, who has raised more than $700,000 for his political action committee. Rep. Peter King of New York, another hawk on foreign policy, is eyeing a run as well.
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Of all those being talked about – or talking themselves up – there is only one who could enter the race and immediately be declared The Man to Beat.
Former Florida governor Jeb Bush has a stature that gives him the luxury of waiting, knowing that he could upend the contest the moment he took the plunge.
“I’m going to think about it later,” Bush said during a school tour Wednesday. “I’m deferring the decision to the right time, which is later this year, and the decision will be based on, can I do it joyfully, because I think we need to have candidates lift our spirits – it’s a pretty pessimistic country right now – and is it right for my family? So I don’t even want to think about that till it’s the right time, and that’s later on.”
A high profile can be a dangerous thing in the preseason, as Bush’s fellow Floridian Rubio can attest.
Barely a year ago, the cover of Time magazine hailed Rubio as “The Republican Savior.” But he flubbed his attempt at a star turn delivering the GOP response to the 2013 State of the Union address, and more significantly, he enraged some conservatives in his party by lending his wattage to the Senate’s comprehensive immigration overhaul bill.
Rubio subsequently assumed a lower profile, and by November, the cover of Time was proclaiming: “How Chris Christie Can Win Over the GOP.”
Christie’s landslide 2013 re-election, however, has been his high mark thus far. As the New Jersey governor battles a scandal surrounding a traffic jam on the George Washington Bridge last year, he stands at third behind Ryan and Bush in the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll.
Christie still has heavy backing among major Republican donors, including Home Depot co-founder Ken Langone, who hosted a large reception for the governor in Florida last month.
More than 200 financiers attended, sipping cocktails and extolling Christie’s blue-state success. Several promised support for a super PAC that is being put together on his behalf. In 2012, that kind of outside funding became crucial.
“These other guys, they all have presidential aspirations. And guess what? They go away if Christie becomes the clear leader,” Langone said.
As for the impact of the bridge controversy on Christie’s prospects, Langone said: “One good beating makes you more likely to withstand the next beating. This is a growth experience for him.”
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Republicans are hoping to bring order out of chaos with a new set of rules to govern the nominating process.
The new rules – if enforced – would tighten the primary season and delay its launch until February. (The 2012 Iowa caucuses took place in mid-January.)
The RNC would prohibit “beauty contests” such as Iowa’s straw poll, which saps campaign resources and provides a jolt of temporary buzz but usually proves to be meaningless in picking the ultimate nominee. The party also hopes to sharply limit the number of debates and expects to move its convention up to late June or early July, which would give its nominee a jump on the general election season.
Yet there is always the possibility that an ill-timed breakout moment could catapult one of the less-viable candidates to the nomination, said Republican consultant Mike Murphy, who mentioned Cruz as a potential “poison pill in a general” election.
“The Democrats had their McGovern,” Murphy said, referring to the 1972 landslide election. “Hopefully, we won’t have ours.”
That is why any real solution to the party’s problems lies in the candidates, many senior Republicans argue.
“I thought we had a weak field in 2012,” said Barbour, who is one of the most influential voices in the GOP establishment. He predicted that 2016 will see “a large field, like in 2012, but a much higher-quality field.”
If Republicans win back the Senate, in addition to holding the House, they can also help clarify the party’s message, giving voters a clearer picture of what the GOP stands for, Barbour said.
“We will be able to get more passed,” Barbour said. “A lot of people would feel better about the Republican Party’s direction.”