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March 6, 2014
Viewpoints: GOP presidential field wide open in 2016

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(March 6 — By Bill Whalen)

In case you weren't paying attention - and there have been good reasons to be distracted: the rain on your roof; the Academy Awards on TV; the perp walk on the floor of the California state Senate - the Republican Party has a new front-runner in the contest to succeed President Obama.

Or so declared The National Journal, a meter-reader of all things presidential, in choosing Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul as the GOP's flavor of the moment.

The rationale: Paul benefits from his knack for tapping into the kind of paranoia that fertilizes the grass roots (government surveillance, Clinton sex scandals); a compressed primary schedule in 2016; plus his father's national network (Ron Paul, a libertarian icon and retired Texas congressman, ran for the White House in 1988, 2008 and 2012).

Two months ago, this wouldn't have been the case. Leading the pack then was New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, fresh off a landslide re-election win. But a bridge scandal changed that. Just as two months from now, the chattering class could have a new hobby horse. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio all have smart messages and their own followings. And don't forget Mitt Romney, who insists he has no interest, but nonetheless sits atop a New England College poll of 2016 GOP possibilities, with Paul second and Christie third.

So what's going on here?

Two things - one being a welcome change for campaign watchers, the other a deep concern for Republican loyalists.

First, the welcome change. In 2016, the adage of "Democrats fall in love, Republicans fall in line" is reversed. Odds are there won't be that one GOP candidate who can check all the boxes of (1) this, their last campaign; (2) the runner-up or the last nominee; (3) the most money in the bank; (4) the best organization and machinery; (5) the muscle to discourage challengers.

It's a formula that's worked for five of the last six Republican nominees going back to Ronald Reagan in 1980. However, it doesn't apply to the next Republicans competition, which isn't so much a game of thrones as it is a battle of equals.

To the extent that strength, sinew and inevitability define any one candidate in the 2016 field, it would be Hillary Clinton. Indeed, should she run, Americans learning to love Hillary - after Democrats have fallen in line with her - ultimately will decide her fate.

Thus, Republicans face their most open presidential field in modern times - a field that's at least two deep in five key categories: big war chests (Christie, Ryan); expanding the base (Rubio and Bush); social conservatism (the two Ricks - Perry and Santorum); governors-know-best (Louisiana's Bobby Jindal and Wisconsin's Scott Walker); and mischief-makers (Paul and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas).

How such a crowded field sorts out itself in a narrower time frame (four months of voting instead of six, with fewer debates) remains to be seen, but at least the debate stage won't be littered, as it was in 2012, with lightweights and dim bulbs.

As for the GOP's concern: It's not identifying a frontrunner; it's enduring an identity crisis.

Once upon a time, the Republican brand was simple: Reagan - his optimistic personality; his conservative beliefs. However, 2016 marks a half-century since Reagan's first run for governor of California and 28 years since he left the national stage.

His party is in a physical rut - losing the popular vote in five of the seven post-Reagan presidential elections. And it's in an intellectual void - no leading man, no leading philosophy.

In 2016, will Republicans find an intellectual heir to the Reagan belief set, or will they go with a makeshift philosopher in the tradition of Romney, John McCain and Bob Dole?

As usual, there's the question of where the Golden State fits into all of this. You won't find a California city among the eight that have applied to host the 2016 Republican National Convention. Still, state Republicans do offer a window into the self-destructiveness - impractical litmus tests and stubbornly refusing to broaden the party's base or beliefs - that likewise plagues the national party.

The California GOP apparently has learned what its big brother may or may not get away with in 2016: If differences can't be resolved, sweep them under the rug. Thus, we have a state party convention next week in Burlingame that's purposely designed to minimize the differences between the GOP's two gubernatorial hopefuls and their competing activist camps. It promises a no-news zone and no public displays of disaffection. Unfortunately, it also means no progress in filling that intellectual void.

If only the national Republican Party could learn to fall in line - or line up to fall in love in 2016.

Bill Whalen is a Hoover Institution research fellow and former speechwriter for Gov. Pete Wilson. Reach him at whalenoped@gmail.com.



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