GOP waiting for 2016 stars to rise

Texas Gov. Rick Perry once famously described the 2012 Republican presidential field as the “weakest … in history.” Republicans expect better things in 2016, but today there are as many question marks as exclamation points behind the names of their prospective candidates.

Perry’s assessment was widely shared. The cast of characters in 2012 included implausible contenders such as Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and businessman Herman Cain as well as some established politicians, such as former House speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia, who had little chance of being elected president. Is it any wonder former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney won the nomination?

During the 2012 campaign, many Republicans were already looking with favor at a group of newly elected governors and senators – impressive but judged not quite ready for the national stage. The courtship of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie by a group of wealthy GOP fundraisers in summer 2011 was one obvious sign of the lack of confidence in the presidential field at the time.

Christie wasn’t the only one drawing attention as a future prospect for a presidential bid. The new generation included Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ted Cruz of Texas; Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the party’s vice presidential nominee; and Govs. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and John Kasich of Ohio.

Add to that group former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush as well as the runners-up from 2008 and 2012 – former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania – and it is understandable why Republicans believed their 2016 contenders would be several cuts above the collective field from 2012.

Fast forward to the summer of 2014. Perceptions have obviously changed. How else to explain the nostalgia for Romney and the interest in a Romney 2016 candidacy (despite his repeated denials)? One small sign of this came last week in a Suffolk University-Boston Herald poll of New Hampshire Republicans. Who is the current front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination in the Granite State? It’s Romney, whose 24 percent laps the rest of the field.

The Republican nomination contest is unsettled and unpredictable. One big reason is that the prospective candidates have done little in the past 18 months to establish themselves as capable of uniting their fractious coalition and winning a national election. Some obviously have regressed.

Christie has taken the biggest tumble, once the presumed favorite of the establishment and the donor class in the party and considered someone who conceivably could compete effectively in purple and some blue states. But he is struggling to re-establish himself politically from a bridge scandal last fall and the budgetary and economic problems he is facing in his state. His stock is down within the party.

This past week’s headlines brought apparent trouble for Walker, who has been described as a prospective candidate who can appeal to both tea party and establishment wings of the GOP. His latest problem came from unsealed documents in an ongoing lawsuit that said prosecutors put him at the center of a criminal scheme to evade campaign finance laws.

The story is much more complex than the headlines. The case involves interpretations of coordination under campaign finance laws and could eventually land the issue in the Supreme Court. Legal maneuvering continues.

Walker has aggressively rejected the allegations as coming from politically motivated prosecutors. He may be in no imminent legal jeopardy, but the lawsuit opens a window to how tightly he controls his political operation. He has a tough re-election campaign ahead of him, and then Republicans will have to decide how he looks as a possible national candidate.

The list goes on. Republicans began to look at Bush with renewed interest early this year during Christie’s troubles. The former governor is doing everything he should to preserve his ability to run for president, but there are doubts that, in the end, he will jump into the race. He hasn’t run a campaign since 2002 and is at odds with the GOP’s base. Democrats fear him, but early polling suggests that he is far from the dominant candidate for the nomination that his brother George was in 2000.

After the 2012 election, Rubio was considered a likely superstar in the GOP constellation. But he had a difficult 2013, angering conservatives by pushing for comprehensive immigration reform. He has been working since to rejuvenate his standing and establish his credentials as a domestic and foreign policy expert. The repair work continues.

Ryan, the architect of a conservative budget blueprint, has sent mixed signals about 2016. Like others, he has visited Iowa, raising speculation about his intentions. He opted out of the House leadership sweepstakes after Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia was defeated.

“If I wanted to be in elected leadership, I would have run for it years ago,” he told The Washington Post’s Robert Costa. Is that because he’s more interested in running for president or becoming chairman of the Ways and Means Committee?

Cruz has fired up tea party activists like no other Republican, generating applause lines and cheers with his denunciations of the Affordable Care Act and of squishy conservatism. But he hasn’t done much to expand beyond that and he has many detractors in the Senate and among establishment Republicans outside.

Santorum has a blue-collar message that offers Republicans something positive on economic issues beyond cuts to taxes and spending, but hasn’t built a constituency around it. Huckabee had a blue-collar message when he ran. Iowa Republicans say there isn’t room for two such strong social conservatives in the 2016 caucuses.

Paul has been shrewd in picking his issues and his moments and has provoked considerable interest as a result, with attacks on everyone from the Clintons to Dick Cheney to President Barack Obama. He has been tactical in appealing to constituencies that aren’t a natural part of the GOP coalition, especially young people. He has yet to bring everything together in a big and coherent message.

Jindal has been running hard to the right, focusing on his opposition to the Common Core education standards he once embraced, speaking out about the issue of religious liberty, defending “Duck Dynasty” leader Phil Robertson, offering a conservative health-care plan while attacking Obama at every opportunity. He registers in the low single digits in polls.

Perry, whose campaign quickly crashed in 2012, was in Washington last week, talking up a possible 2016 campaign even as he acknowledged that he had “kind of stepped in it” when speaking about homosexuality in California the week earlier. He says that if he runs, he will be better prepared than he was in 2012. Can better preparation overcome the initial impression he left with voters?

Hillary Rodham Clinton’s book tour has reminded people not only of some of her political strengths but also of some weaknesses as a prospective candidate. She’ll face renewed questions about authenticity and will battle potential Clinton fatigue. Beyond that, Obama could well be a liability for the Democratic nominee in 2016, given his standing today.

That gives Republicans opportunities, but only if their candidates rise to the challenge. There seems little doubt that the party’s field will be superior to that of 2012. But when the candidate with the most stature today is the politician who lost the presidential race two years ago, that should make Republicans wonder when the rising stars will fully step up.

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