Handicapping the early field of GOP players

With Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas becoming the first A-lister to throw his hat in the ring for president — in his case, I’m picturing a Napoleonic bicorn rather than a fedora — it’s time to handicap the race for the Republican nomination. I see it as Jeb Bush vs. the field, and I’m not ready to put my money on Bush.

Some may write off Cruz’s candidacy as a potentially entertaining sideshow, given his negligible showing in the polls. But that would be premature. Whatever anyone thinks about Cruz, even his critics agree that he’s smart.

True, his habit of usurping Speaker John Boehner’s job and leading House Republicans into hopeless battles has alienated much of the GOP establishment. But whatever game he’s playing, Cruz has the intelligence to look several moves ahead. For this reason alone, I can’t count him out.

Texas Ted is still a long shot, however. The man to beat is Bush — and I think someone could do just that, though I’m not sure who.

Take all of this with as many grains of salt as you like. Polling results are all over the map, and the sheer number of potential candidates makes meaningful analysis basically impossible at this point. Anecdotal evidence abounds but is by definition unreliable. All of which explains why predicting the outcome of the nomination battle, at this far-too-early date, is so much fun. There are so few facts to get in the way of a good story.

With these caveats, we do know that Bush — not yet a declared candidate — has moved quickly to lock up a host of major Republican donors, assemble teams of experienced advisers and reportedly begin working out a comprehensive strategy for the general election. Since the beginning of the year, polls have shown him at or near the top of the field.

Is he, in the end, too much of a moderate to stir the passions of Republican primary voters? I don’t know, but I think he has a bigger problem: that unfortunate last name.

I can think of two people who would be absolutely delighted if the 2016 presidential election were between a Republican named Bush and a Democrat named Clinton: Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton. If they run against each other, the dynastic issue becomes a wash. For most of the country, however, I believe this prospect is less than thrilling.

Which might explain why Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is suddenly challenging Bush for the early lead — beating him, actually, in some polls. A couple of months ago, I’d wager, most Americans could not have picked Walker out of a lineup. Now, anyone paying close attention knows at least a few things about him: He talks tough, which Republican primary voters like. He won a battle against public employee unions in his state, which Republican primary voters love. And he isn’t named Bush.

Nobody knows if Walker has what it takes to make it all the way through primary season. And a host of others will have the chance to present themselves as the not-named-Bush alternative.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, like Bush, would automatically give Republicans a good chance of taking Florida’s electoral votes, which the GOP almost surely will need to have any hope of winning the presidency. Rubio has positioned himself as a foreign policy hawk. But will he have a positive message that can get voters excited? And will the party ever forgive him his apostasy on immigration?

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, with his noninterventionist leanings on foreign policy and his libertarian views on some social issues, has unique appeal, among Republicans, for younger voters. But can he survive what will surely be a withering assault from GOP hawks who advocate a more muscular U.S. presence around the world?

It is unclear whether former Texas Gov. Rick Perry can do better this time around or whether New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s presidential hopes still have a pulse. It is also unclear, at least to me, why famed neurosurgeon Ben Carson registers in double digits in some polls, despite never having run for public office.

One of these men — and yes, they’re all men — may have the imagination to shape what Sarah Palin might call a “hopey changey” campaign message and the discipline to stick to it. If the candidate who does this is not named Bush, that’s where I’ll be placing my bet.

Eugene Robinson’s email address is eugenerobinson@washpost.com.

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