By Jonathan Easley - 11-28-14 06:14 AM EST
Republicans say their long list of 2016 hopefuls is among the deepest, most diverse group in recent history without a clear frontrunner.
“This is the most open field we’ve ever seen,” one GOP strategist told The Hill.
That means there will be a narrow path to victory for many of the candidates, as they fight for the money, media, and voters they’ll need in the win-early-or-go-home battle royale.
The Hill spoke to more than a half-dozen Republican strategists to find out where the top names currently rank. Here’s their take.
THE BIG THREE
These candidates will leverage strong donor bases and have the most potential to bridge the establishment vs. conservative gap.
Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.)
Paul would not have been in the top tier just a few months ago, but since then he’s become a media sensation. He’s as comfortable bashing the president for his immigration executive actions on Fox News as he is joking about pot with Bill Maher on HBO’s “Real Time.”
In addition to inheriting his father’s campaign infrastructure, he’s moved early and aggressively to build his own from Silicon Valley to Washington.
Paul’s Libertarian streak could appeal to young voters who have tilted Democratic in recent years. And out of the top tier of establishment contenders, he has the best chance of winning the Iowa caucuses, which would make him the unquestioned frontrunner.
“Paul supporters always do more with less,” one strategist said. But it doesn’t look like he’ll have to this time around.
Gov. Chris Christie (N.J.)
Christie “thinks on his feet and returns fire,” one strategist said. “Republicans love that.”
He already has a lock on the New York-New Jersey fundraising network, and his success as chairman of the Republican Governors Association has boosted him nationally.
But Christie will need to focus on the New Hampshire primary right away because conservative voters in Iowa and South Carolina aren’t likely to give him an early boost.
Former Gov. Jeb Bush (Fla.)
With the best name ID and access to his family’s deep political and fundraising lines, Bush would loom large over the field if he does run. But strategists question whether he wants it bad enough to go through the grinder.
“There are lots of differences between him and his brother, but one of them is that George loved to campaign and Jeb does not like it,” one Republican said. “Jeb can disarm Wolf Blitzer in an interview, but I’m not sure he’s interested in handling 100,000 screaming Ted Cruz fans.”
THE CONSERVATIVE GUNNERS
The 2012 Republican field was roiled by conservative upstarts, but those driving the conversation to the right this time around will be more polished and better funded.
Former Gov. Mike Huckabee (Ark.)
“If he’s in the field, the calculations change completely,” one strategist said. “He’s the biggest draw among conservatives who turn out in primaries.”
That’s a big if, because Huckabee enjoys a comfortable life right now hosting a popular weekend show on Fox News. But if he were inclined to leave that behind, strategists say he could do even better than he did in 2008 because he’d be able to raise money, already has a network, and is a known commodity.
“He can’t be underestimated,” another strategist said. “His folksy appeal and blue collar appeal is very strong, certainly in Iowa. He’s also very well known, so he starts out ahead of the pack there, and he can rally evangelicals like no other candidate. It’s stunning how devoted his followers are.”
Sen. Ted Cruz (Texas)
Cruz’s brand of unabashed conservatism will play well on the campaign trail in the critical early voting states. He seems to relish the attacks against him, especially those who try to portray him as a far-right extremist.
Those attributes will keep the fundraising dollars rolling in and will produce strong turnout for his events especially in states like Iowa and South Carolina.
But if Huckabee is in the race, strategists wonder if there’s enough oxygen in the room for both.
THE SECOND TIER
In any other year, these two might be near the top of the list but each has a glaring issue that knocks them down a peg.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.)
Most of Republicans interviewed included Rubio in the top tier of establishment candidates, but he falls on this list because his candidacy is dependent on Bush declining to run.
“Marco’s biggest problem, other than immigration, is if Jeb gets in,” said one strategist.
“They have overlapping fundraising needs,” another strategist said. “There are donors who give to both Jeb and Rubio, but not many who give to only Rubio.”
Still, Republicans have high hopes for Rubio, with one strategist calling him a “generational candidate” who can use the 2016 cycle to “introduce and define himself positively,” whether that’s as a presidential candidate or as a high-level surrogate.
If a presidential run isn’t in the cards this time around, Republicans say he’s a likely top pick for vice president, along with New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez.
Gov. Scott Walker (Wis.)
Walker has a conservative resume that Republicans lust over and has survived three tough contests. The only thing keeping him out of the top tier is that strategists say he doesn’t have the star power or charisma to cut through a crowded field of big personalities.
“A lot of donors are interested in Walker because he’s a governor,” one strategist said. “But he’s severely lacking on the communications side.”
NEEDS AN IOWA MIRACLE
The strong competition and narrow path for these candidates has some questioning whether they’ll be able to break through.
Gov. Rick Perry (Texas)
“In 2012 he woke up, decided to run, and there was suddenly $18 or $19 million in a campaign account for him,” one strategist said.
But Perry may have whiffed on his best chance at the White House in 2012, when the group of candidates was considerably weaker. Strategists say he’s not as popular as Huckabee and not as fiery a conservative as Cruz.
Dr. Ben Carson
Republicans say there won’t be any room for the kind of upstart, underfunded candidates that made waves in 2012, so it’s a testament to how much respect they have for Carson that he made this list at all.
“Ben Carson is very interesting,” one strategist said. “He’s important to the discussion…he won’t win, but he needs to be in conversation and could develop a compelling narrative.”
WAITING IN THE WINGS
Expect to see a lot of this bunch on the campaign trail, even if it’s just to build chits for a potential Cabinet spot or vice presidential candidacy.
“This group is better for campaigning with, not running,” a strategist said. “A lot of these candidates are like boxers in first round of a fight, listening to the media, checking the winds. They’re going to donors and activists, saying ‘I know you’ve made your choice, but hypothetically if that person drops out, I want to be your second choice’.”
Gov. Mike Pence (Ind.)
A social conservative with a strong record as governor, some Republicans argued that he belongs in the first tier of conservative gunners and is the best of the group of Republican governors mulling a bid.
“If another conservative isn’t in the running, maybe Pence does,” said one strategist. “Why not take a shot and see if you can catch fire at the end?”
Gov. Bobby Jindal (La.)
Strategists say Jindal has the strong record on policy but lacks the charisma to make a dent in the field.
“He’s nobody’s favorite and everybody’s backup,” one Republican said.
The strategists largely believe that Jindal will be a big presence on the campaign trail, but say he’s likely angling for a Cabinet spot in a potential Republican administration.
Sen. Rob Portman (Ohio)
Portman has a reputation as a moderate, which isn’t necessarily a good attribute in the primary process.
“Talk to some lobbyists around DC and they’ll tell you Rob Portman would be the best person to be president, if only he could run a campaign,” one strategist said.
Gov. John Kasich (Ohio)
Kasich is also boosted by virtue of being from the critical swing state of Ohio.
“Don’t count the Ohio twins out for vice president,” one strategist said.
“Kasich is a little too flakey, he’s still Kasich the congressman to a lot of people, and generally speaking, the politics of Ohio are a little too left of center for a lot of Republicans,” said another. “But guys like him bring an awful lot to the debate.”