These are early days, and the race is a marathon, not a sprint. But running for president is like competing on “American Idol.” The successful candidate must not just be a serious thinker with a real record of accomplishment but someone who connects with ordinary voters. He or she must be a 21st century leader who understands that America hangs by a thread, and that time to save her is short. The GOP — and America — need a fighter.
Who, then, seems to fit the bill?
There are currently three major baskets of Republican candidates.
The Establishment Basket got a bit lighter with the exit of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. Hemorrhaging donors, supporters and strategists to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush made it increasingly difficult for him to compete in a far more formidable field than the one he dominated in 2012, so he took a powder.
That leaves Mr. Bush and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie as the Establishment choices. Mr. Bush is popular with the all-important donor class and will likely dominate early fundraising. Mr. Christie has lost some of his luster with that group, so it’s critical he try to move beyond it — which is why his appearance last week among conservatives at the Iowa Freedom Summit was so necessary and important. He has largely disproved those who claimed he was “too Jersey” for the rest of the country, but he often gets in his own way (as he did this week with his comments on vaccinations).
The big question for Mr. Christie is whether he can establish trust with the conservative base. His state has relatively high unemployment, taxes and debt, and he’s embraced President Obama a little too often. However, Mr. Bush has a base problem, too, because of his support of de facto amnesty for illegal immigrants and Common Core education standards, among other things. While Mr. Christie is at least a fresh voice, Mr. Bush doesn’t have a compelling reason for his candidacy beyond a dynastic claim to power. He may have the dough, but even money can’t buy a self-sustaining message.
The Conservative Basket of candidates overflows with many talented, accomplished leaders, all of whom are now jockeying to be the anti-Bush.
Boomlets have developed around Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. On paper, Mr. Walker is one of the very best candidates. A Republican chief executive in a deeply blue state, Mr. Walker crushed multiple attacks by the left and unions; as a result, his pro-growth economic policies have taken root and are turning his state around. Not a small achievement in the birthplace of progressivism. His low-key style may inhibit his ability to punch through; then again, after eight years of Mr. Obama, voters may have had enough razzle-dazzle.
Mr. Rubio is a gale force of good ideas and charismatic personality, and he’s worked to repair the damage with conservatives from his immigration proposal. But under Florida law, he’d have to give up his Senate seat in order to run, and with Mr. Bush in the race, Mr. Rubio might determine that 2016 isn’t the time to sacrifice his high-profile perch in the Senate. Then again, he may go for broke.
This brings us to the candidate most likely to shatter all conventional wisdom: Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. Unlike Messrs. Bush, Christie and Rubio, Mr. Cruz doesn’t have to prove himself to the base — or make anything up to them. Because of his unflinching willingness to really fight for core conservative principles, from limited government to fiscal responsibility, he’s a rock star who will drive votes. Whether it’s enough to carry him to the nomination — and to raise big money — remains to be seen, but I expect he’ll stun a lot of folks when voting actually begins.
Former Gov. Rick Perry has presided over an economic success story in Texas and has shown leadership in dealing with the crisis on the southern border. Still, memories of his last unsuccessful run may linger, and his appeal beyond the South is uncertain. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee enjoys support from a loyal core of social conservatives, but how much broader his support might be is unclear. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal is polished, accomplished and focused; he’s an underdog who could surprise.
Dr. Ben Carson is a powerful thinker with a moving personal story, but presidential campaigns tend to be unkind to political novices, particularly to those as fundamentally decent as Dr. Carson.
The Libertarian Basket holds one wild card candidate: Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul. His tendency toward foreign policy non-interventionism and support for some of Mr. Obama’s policies (i.e., Cuba) may alienate voters increasingly alarmed by rising international threats. However, his position on privacy issues resonates strongly with young people, and if he gets a groundswell of support from millennials, the race could get interesting.
As the campaign proceeds, the baskets will be upended more than once. The endurance race has just begun. And a weary, staggering nation desperately awaits its 21st century leader.
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