By Chris Cillizza, Aaron Blake and Sean Sullivan The Washington Post
WASHINGTON — It’s never too soon to be thinking about the next political campaign and the next set of candidates that will populate that campaign.
That goes double for a presidential campaign in which the jockeying for position begins years in advance of any actual voters paying attention. If you don’t think the candidates prominently mentioned as potential 2016ers aren’t already thinking about that race, well, you are wrong. They are. Trust us.
And, as it happens, so are we. (By “we”, we mean that legion of incurable political junkies who need this stuff like they need oxygen.) And so, it’s that time – the time for our first rankings of where the 2016 presidential field stands.
Today we rank the 10 Republicans most likely to end up as the GOP nominee in 2016.
You can assume all the usual caveats. Yes, it’s early 2013, so predicting what will happen in three years time is not – surprise! – foolproof. And, yes some of the people mentioned below won’t run. And some people not on the list will.
The number one ranked candidate below is regarded as the person with the best chance of being the nominee.
10. John Thune: The South Dakota senator looks the part of a presidential candidate — tall, dark, handsome — and has a record that conservatives love but isn’t scary to the party establishment. The issue for Thune is whether he wants it badly enough. He had a golden opportunity to get into the 2012 race as a major contender and, oddly, passed. As the Post’s Dan Balz wrote at the time, Thune’s “no” to 2012 could well have a lingering impact on his chances in 2016.
9. Rob Portman: He doesn’t bring the glitz and glamour of some of the other names of this list, but we’d be remiss if we didn’t include the Ohio senator. His experience as White House budget director makes him a credible voice on economic matters, and his current gig as National Republican Senatorial Committee vice chairman means he won’t be far away from the party’s most influential donors. Plus, did we mention he’s from Ohio? Long a presidential debate prep partner, Portman could well play the role of candidate in 2016.
8. John Kasich: The former congressman and current Ohio governor was a big deal in the Republican Party and even ran for president, briefly, in 2000. Provided he can win reelection in 2014, we should expect Kasich to at least consider a presidential bid. Kasich is a conservative favorite and comes from a swing state that is increasingly recovering economically. And at a press conference in November, he notably didn’t rule out a future presidential run.
7. Mike Pence: There was chatter that Pence was weighing a run for the nomination in 2012, but he opted instead to leave the U.S. House to make a successful bid for the Indiana governorship. Smart move. Pence, whose background prior to getting into politics was in talk radio, is an underrated communicator and is the sort of person who already has a significant following among the Republican activist base. If you are looking for a dark(ish) horse in the 2016 primary, Pence might be it. (Worth noting, though: He might have to give up his current office, which is up in 2016.)
6. Rand Paul: The first-term Kentucky senator looks more and more like a presidential candidate every day. During a foreign policy address at the Heritage Foundation this week, he took a more middle-of-the-road approach than his father, Ron Paul, while also sticking to his libertarian ideals. Paul has also been among the most outspoken conservatives in the Senate in recent weeks, which suggests he won’t let anybody get to his right in a presidential primary.
5. Jeb Bush: The stigma associated with his last name is fading, and by 2016 it will likely be even less of a factor. Republicans like Bush’s dual appeal to the conservative and establishment wings of the party, and he is seen as a leading figure on education and immigration reform. His recent Wall Street Journal op-ed on the latter issue suggests he wants to remain part of the conversation, but his reported effort to buy the Miami Marlins suggests a guy who isn’t banking on becoming the third Bush in the White House. We’ll find out in time just how big a role he wants to play. If Bush shows any sign of actually moving toward the race, he’d likely top this list.
4. Paul Ryan: The House budget committee chairman and former vice presidential nominee recently said that he’s “decided not to decide” about 2016. Well, OK. But let’s face it, it’ll be hard for Ryan to ignore the question, given his status as one of the party’s leading figures. Ryan’s message since the end of the 2012 campaign has been clear: We live in a world of divided government, and we need to find a way to make that work. If Congress can accomplish more in the next four years than it did in the previous four, look for Ryan to stake claim to some credit. One question remains: Is Ryan better positioned – temperamentally and in terms of his native strengths – to be the next House Republican leader rather than one of a field of GOP presidential candidates? That’s quite possible.
3. Bobby Jindal: The Louisiana governor is running – and running hard. His speech at the Republican National Committee’s winter meeting in Charlotte last month laid a marker for how Jindal will run for president: as an outside-the-Beltway reformer who has achieved results on conservative pet projects (education reform, tax reform) during his time as governor. While many in Washington know Jindal only by his flop of a Republican response to President Barack Obama’s first congressional address, that seems more the exception than the rule when it comes to his potential on the national stage.
2. Chris Christie: The New Jersey governor is the most popular man on this list, in large part because he gets the approval of people from across the political spectrum. But in fact, some in conservative circles are starting to be suspect of Christie because of his willingness to criticize his party – see his John Boehner rant – and his praise of Obama related to Hurricane Sandy. Christie certainly wants to lock down his 2013 reelection campaign first, but if he wants to run for president, he’s at risk of making some enemies among conservatives right now.
1. Marco Rubio: The Florida senator has just been christened — by us and others — as the new de facto leader of the Republican Party. But with that opportunity comes peril — notably, if Rubio fails to shepherd a successful immigration bill to passage and/or alienates conservatives in the process. But Rubio is the most naturally gifted politician on this list and his party seems ready to put him forward as its face, as evidenced by his being chosen to give the Republican response to Obama’s State of the Union address on Tuesday.