The No-Nonsense GOP Presidential Primary Ranking

Jamie Weinstein Senior Writer
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With Rand Paul and Ted Cruz both officially entering the Republican presidential race over the last week — and Marco Rubio expected to enter the race Monday — the political world is abuzz with the 2016 horserace.

Sure, theoretically, any one of the 16 million or so potential Republican contenders could win the nomination — you can never entirely rule out a Pataki-Huckabee ticket or a Trump-Santorum tag team. But in reality, if we’re honest with ourselves, there are only really four potential GOP contenders who have a serious shot of being the GOP nominee (with maybe a couple of dark horses).

Keep in mind: This is not to say that those who don’t have a chance at actually winning the nomination can’t win a state or two, or do better than some of the candidates who do have the potential to win it all.

The Serious Contenders For The Nomination 

1st Tier

1.) Jeb Bush: By virtue of the outrageously large sums of money he appears to be raising, Bush must be considered to be the frontrunner for the nomination — or, at least, co-frontrunner. That doesn’t mean he will be the nominee, but he is building an impressive campaign team and cash will not be a problem for the former Florida governor. What’s more, Bush has a good record to run on: Even current critics are forced to recognize he was a very capable and very conservative governor of one of the largest states in the country. I am skeptical his stance on immigration will hurt him too badly — most of the potential 2016 contenders support now or have supported in the recent past some type of pathway to legalization for illegal immigrants, and I don’t think GOP voters are as obsessed with the issue as some conservative radio show hosts. Common Core could be a bigger problem, though Bush can argue he never supported its federalization. But his biggest problem could be his name: Do GOP voters want to elect yet another Bush? Maybe, if he can convince them that he is the best candidate. But Jeb has to make sure he doesn’t become Jon Huntsman. He can’t pander to the left by kicking the GOP base. (May I suggest a series of interviews with The Daily Caller instead of Esquire, a la Huntsman?) But even as other candidates rise and fall, Bush is remaining steady at or near the top of the polls, both nationally and in all the early primary states, even as he regularly gets beat up as a squishy moderate by talk radio. I suspect the more people hear about Jeb’s actual record, the more they will like him — even the staunchest conservatives. As George Will recently noted, given his record, if Jeb Bush “is called a threat to conservatism, Republicans are with Alice in Wonderland.”

2.) Marco Rubio: If only Marco Rubio had executive experience. That’s the Florida senator’s main downside in the age of Obama. Nonetheless, Rubio is extremely attractive as a presidential contender, even if national and state polls don’t quite yet reflect it. He is far and away the best and most inspiring speaker among the potential Republican presidential aspirants. Though born here, he has an immigrant’s understanding of America as a land of immense opportunity. At a time when the world is falling apart, he has a strong grasp of foreign affairs. Unlike Mitt Romney, Rubio doesn’t come off as stiff. You get the sense that he would feel comfortable no matter what room he was in — be it at a Koch brothers’ summit or a NAACP convention. Will his support for the Gang of Eight’s immigration bill hurt him? I say not much. A recent Wall Street Journal poll indicated that more Republicans were willing to at least consider voting for Rubio than any other candidate. Poised, confident and polished, Rubio very well may capture the nomination. But he has to convincingly answer the question of why he is best qualified to be president, especially considering his lack of executive and private sector experience. He can’t get pigeonholed as the Republican Obama — a masterful speaker without the needed substance and experience to lead the country.

3.) Scott Walker:  The Wisconsin governor has the ability to win over both those who hate the so-called “establishment” and those who identify as the “establishment.” As governor of Wisconsin, he has made tough conservative decisions and weathered the tempest that resulted from them. If the GOP electorate is looking for a governor with a fresh face, Walker is obviously a top contender. But is he ready for the national stage? The verdict is still out.

4.) Chris Christie:  Once seen by many as the frontrunner for the Republican nomination in 2016, Christie has had a precipitous fall. It started with Bridgegate. Though no one has ever proven that Christie directly ordered his subordinate to shutdown several lanes of the George Washington Bridge as political retribution, by the standard President Barack Obama is held to by conservatives, it is hard not to blame Christie for at least creating a culture where such an action seemed permissible. Christie was once seen as a bully for the people — Bridgegate threatens to change that image into a bully against the people. Beyond that unfortunate scandal, there are also New Jersey’s economic problems, including multiple credit downgrades for the state. None of this is helpful to Christie’s likely 2016 run. And yet, don’t count a Christie comeback out. If Bush and Walker falter, Christie is the governor waiting in the wings so long as no other scandal surfaces. He is a formidable political talent. I don’t buy for a moment that his New Jersey tough guy act can’t sell across the country, as some commentators like to argue. In fact, it’s that New Jersey tough guy persona that made him a conservative superstar all over the country in the first place. So Christie may be down — but he is not quite out yet.

2nd Tier

5.) Mitt Romney:  After flirting with a run at the beginning of the year, the 2012 Republican nominee now says he has no intention of entering the race this time around and he seems sincere about it. Even so, he still has a better chance than most of the other potential 2016 contenders. If the aforementioned top tier candidates falter, Romney could enter the race late to — as some in the party would surely see it — save the day.

6.) Rick Perry:  I can’t believe I’m writing this, but there is a faint chance Rick Perry could be the GOP nominee. Back in 2012, I thought Perry would never be able to look his children and grandchildren in the eyes again after his disastrous presidential run, much less be a contender in 2016. But the three-term Texas governor seems like a new man these days. He’s boned up on policy, appears relaxed and confident in his public appearances, and seems to no longer have memory problems. If Jeb Bush turns out to be Jon Huntsman redux, Scott Walker turns out to be not ready for primetime, Marco Rubio loses his speaking ability (and/or his hair), one of Chris Christie’s advisers shuts down another bridge and Mitt Romney really does prefer spending his time boxing former heavyweight champions, Perry will be there, waiting to steal the nomination. It probably won’t happen. But it could!

The Candidates Who Are Not Going To Win The Nomination  — But May Really Be Running For Something Else

John Bolton: A Bolton candidacy is something to wish for, if only to see the former United Nations ambassador square off with Rand Paul at the debates. Bolton is a foreign policy flamethrower, but he knows what he is talking about. Of course, Bolton wouldn’t run to be president, no matter what he says. Why would he run then? Maybe to insert his foreign policy expertise into the debates, maybe to angle for a cabinet post in a Republican administration, maybe to build his brand (and raise his speaking fees). Or, maybe, just for fun.

Ted Cruz: The Texas senator may be brilliant and a champion debater, but he also often comes across as phony. As National Review’s Charles Cooke has put it, Cruz’s speaking style falls “somewhere between the oleaginousness of a Joel Osteen and the self-assuredness of a midwestern vacuum-cleaner salesman.” Cruz excites some of the GOP activist base, but I don’t see him being able to attract enough support to win the nomination (though it’s not inconceivable that he does well in a place like Iowa). He’s too off-putting to too many people — and I say this as someone who probably agrees with him on most major policy issues. But Cruz may not be primarily running for the 2016 nomination at all.  “Cruz confidants tell me his camp often thinks back to Reagan ’76. They want Ted’s career to be about slow rise on right, even if he loses,” The Washington Post’s Bob Costas reported last month on Twitter. Like most things Cruz has done on the national stage, the Texas senator may be running just to build the Ted Cruz brand.

Carly Fiorina: You don’t go from getting trounced in a Senate race to winning the GOP presidential nomination. But the former Hewlett-Packard CEO wouldn’t enter the White House race to be president, but rather make a case for being selected as the vice presidential candidate. If Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee, it makes sense to have a woman on the GOP ticket who could attack her without being accused of sexism. Fiorina seems to get that and she is doing a fantastic job auditioning for the part.

Lindsey Graham:  The South Carolina senator is not going to be president and he surely knows it. If he runs, it will be to play kingmaker in the South Carolina primary and audition for a top cabinet post (like State or Defense).

Bobby Jindal – At one time, Jindal was seen as a future president. Those days are long gone. Jindal seems to be trying to be too many things to too many people. He also doesn’t quite capture the stage the way a presidential nominee must. But he is not unthinkable as a vice presidential nominee or a cabinet appointment (maybe Health and Human Services?) in a Republican administration.

John Kasich: The Ohio governor is flirting with a presidential run. He’s an intriguing candidate mainly because of his odd ball personality. But there doesn’t seem to be a groundswell demanding a John Kasich candidacy. If he runs, perhaps he does so to be considered for a cabinet post in a Republican administration.

Rand Paul: Rand Paul has many positive attributes — from his stance on sentencing reform to his attempt to expand the GOP tent — but as I argued last year in an essay in the American Spectator, he has no path to the nomination, not least because of his foreign policy worldview. Paul has been trying to please the base of his father’s libertarian revolution while at the same time attracting the more hawkish base of the Republican Party. I’m skeptical he will be successful in holding together that uneasy coalition. There’s a good chance Paul gets fewer delegates than his father did in 2012. But if he gets the GOP to move in a more libertarian direction on some domestic issues, his candidacy will have done the party a service.

The ‘Are you kidding?’ Candidates

Ben Carson: Carson may have accomplished more for humanity than any single candidate running this cycle. But he has no path to the nomination (though he could conceivably do well in Iowa). Unfortunately, the longer he stays in the race, the more he threatens to tarnish his well-earned reputation with some of his more ludicrous comments.

Bob Ehrlich: The former Maryland governor is a smart guy and very earnest. But outside his family, I don’t think there is a single person who thinks he has any path to the nomination.

Mike Huckabee: Huckabee is a great communicator and he is polling well in some states, but I refuse to believe that anyone who promotes scam cures for various diseases can win the Republican nomination.

Peter King — If the New York congressman actually runs, I’ll get a tattoo of his face on my forehead.

George Pataki:  The former New York governor might be the only man who thinks his presidential moment has arrived.

Rick Santorum: Santorum is far more substantive a guy than much of the media gives him credit for and he outperformed expectations in 2012. But his time has passed.

Donald Trump: No explanation necessary.

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