Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas kicked off the 2016 presidential race Monday by becoming the first major candidate to officially announce a run — no “seriously considering,” no “weighing options,” none of the typical gobbledygook meant to put an asterisk on what is an obvious White House bid.
Forget for a moment what the freshman Republican lawmaker said. The place he said it, and the timing, spoke more about his standing than any words he uttered. He did not announce his campaign on his home ground of Texas, but at Liberty University, the evangelical Christian campus in Virginia whose students represent the GOP force that he would have to command to have a chance at the nomination. And his attention-getting timing appeared to be driven by his back-bench status in a party that has a bountiful assortment of presidential candidates to choose from in 2016.
It’s flatly foolish to try to divine the future on the political grains of sand now before us. But it is possible to group the Republican candidates — declared or otherwise — into some general categories that suggest their odds of winning the nomination.
Caveat: As every campaign apparatchik will gladly remind, it is possible for a candidate yet unknown or underappreciated to surge in the fields of Iowa or the snows of New Hampshire. During the 2012 campaign, Republicans surfaced a candidate of the month, one after another, as they sought an alternative to establishment front-runner Mitt Romney. Rising to the top this time would require the same ability to catch fire — for longer than a month and with the kind of financial support that eased Romney’s way to the nomination as he dispensed with his challengers one by one.
We look here at those who appear to be running more or less seriously. Sorry, Donald Trump fans, but we can go out on a very thick limb and say the Donald will not be the 2016 Republican nominee. Ditto 2008 vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, despite her lingering support in some quarters. George Pataki? Not going to bite at the former New York governor.
And we’ve discounted another flirtation, that of South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham. Were he to stay in, he would complicate the results in his early-voting home state — he leads in polls there now, not surprisingly. But his interest seems driven by an alternative rationale — advocating a muscular foreign policy, upping his speech fees — rather than a strategy to win the nomination. Arbitrary? You bet.
Here are the categories:
Best odds: Winning the nomination takes an amalgam of money, message, timing and support. Lapping the field in money at this point is former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the son and brother of past presidents, who has worked hard to raise millions from family and party establishment networks. The depth of his rank-and-file support is harder to measure: He has squared off on immigration and education policy against some conservative party elements, making him reliant on more mainstream but less passionate supporters who tend to be outvoted in the early contests but grow in dominance as the campaign year wears on. And he will have to fight a disquieted opposition to legacy politicians.
An early challenge to his primacy has come from Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, whose battles with his state’s unions have given him cachet with party conservatives. He has been criticized lately for shifting rightward as 2016 nears, but his pitch of having successfully imposed conservative goals in a purple Midwestern state is a popular one in his party, which has struggled in that electoral battleground.
A third candidate winning early praise is Sen. Marco Rubio, who comes from Bush’s home state — which complicates alliances for both men — and who presents a younger Latino face for the party. (He is 43 and his parents were born in Cuba.) He impressed attendees with his depth on foreign policy at a January seminar sponsored by the financial network of Republican donors Charles and David Koch. But if Bush’s popularity rises, Rubio’s best shot may be in the future.
Hoping for lightning to strike: Each of the candidates in this category brings some strengths but larger liabilities, and seems more likely to make a mark as an antagonist rather than as a nominee.
Cruz, Monday’s entrant, is best known for unyielding rhetoric and pushing a government shutdown over the federal healthcare law, which undercut the party’s argument that it can govern effectively. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie continues to battle budget and legal troubles at home. Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry is finding his 2016 race hobbled by fallout from his 2012 belly-flop. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul has worked nationally to build a nontraditional GOP campaign that would attract minorities, techies and young people. But reliable Republican voters tend to shy from his isolationist foreign policy views.
Needing more than lightning: These candidates require outside intervention — such as several of the top-tier candidates imploding — so perhaps it’s just as well that many are competing for the evangelical mantle. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum each won the Iowa caucuses — in 2008 and 2012, respectively — but that was against weaker fields in which they were the prime evangelical candidate.
Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson has some tea party flair but little broad appeal. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal is working tirelessly for evangelical and tea party credibility, with no evident success. Former California Senate candidate Carly Fiorina is leading her party’s criticism of likely Democratic nominee Hillary Rodham Clinton but seems more apt to be a provocateur than the Republican pick.
With more than 300 days to go before the first scheduled balloting, in Iowa’s caucuses, polls are meaningless. But they are also telling of where the race is at this early stage. A CNN/ORC poll this month found Bush leading the field with a meager 16% support. But the real news? A dozen candidates were arrayed between zero and 16%, a plethora of options yet unexplored.