Battleground 2016: The GOP's 4-Man Race

The Republican presidential nomination will come down to these four men.

While the GOP has the biggest field of legitimate candidates since 1980, it is starting to look like a four man race five months before the Ames Straw Poll.  The four Republican frontrunners are all first time candidates for president.  Three of them are under 50, hold important elected offices and have long political careers ahead of them.  The fourth is the son and brother of presidents.

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker is the frontrunner in most polls.  He is a proven winner, having racked up ten straight election victories, including three gubernatorial wins in the last four years, in deep blue Wisconsin.  The conservative base loves Walker as much for his sunny outlook as for his hard fought victories over Wisconsin’s public sector unions.  Walker is short on foreign policy experience but, like Ronald Reagan, he has embraced a “peace-through-strength” platform and is putting together a top-notch national security team lead by former Missouri Senator Jim Talent.

Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush has corralled much of the establishment wing of the GOP and locked down the political and donor class in the critical early state of Florida. Although Team Bush is playing down his fundraising prowess, Bush will likely blow through the $100 million dollar mark in the first reporting period. That kind of TV money in the hands of genius Republican strategist Mike Murphy will go a long way on Super Tuesday in overcoming the base’s dislike of Bush’s progressive positions on immigration and common core.  With 41 and 43 in his corner, Bush is right on Walker’s heels.

Florida Senator Marco Rubio will reportedly enter the race on April 13. Rubio knows foreign policy and national security and has been a leader in opposing President Obama’s embrace of Iran and Cuba.  Rubio’s American Dream stump speech – “my father stood for years behind a bar in the back of a hotel ballroom like this one so that one day his son could stand behind the podium in the front of the ballroom…”—is magnificent.  He can give the speech in fluent Spanish as well.  Rubio’s youth and limited time in Washington as a senator is a double-edged sword; he is new and attractive to voters but opponents will point out that so was another young first-term senator who currently resides at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Texas Senator Ted Cruz is officially in the race.  His announcement was well choreographed and appealed straight to the heart of a conservative political party.  Cruz makes the case that no one in American politics has stood up to Obama like him and, thus, no one has taken more flack from Democrats, the mainstream press and moderate Republicans for having done so. 

A lawyer with multiple Supreme Court arguments, Cruz will be feared in the debates.  Electability is the issue for Cruz.  Even the most committed Tea Partiers are concerned about how such a conservative candidate would fare in a general election. After eight years of Obama, the GOP wants a winner.  Cruz responds that only a true conservative can beat the Democrats citing the ill-fated Dole, McCain and Romney campaigns to buttress his case.

The rest of the field.

Others candidates are performing well in early polls and several will have memorable moments in the debates.  This happened in 1980 as well.  Many folks forget that before they were dispatched by Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush won the Iowa caucuses, John Connally raised the most early money, John Anderson won the Massachusetts primary and Bob Dole and Howard Baker had national support. 

Today, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee and Dr. Ben Carson are crowd favorites with strong showings in early polls.  They are, however, viewed by many long time Republican political observers more as Fox News celebrities than the next POTUS.  Former Governor Rick Perry has an incredible record in Texas and a top-notch campaign crew but he will find it hard to overcome his poor outing in 2012.

Former Pennsylvania Rick Santorum overperformed in 2012 as the "true conservative" alternative to Mitt Romney.  He can make no such argument against blue chip conservative frontrunners Walker, Rubio and Cruz.  Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie are fine governors but have been labeled as divisive for different reasons and will struggle to find a national following given the many other options in the field.  Christie’s “give ‘em hell” style of campaigning excites some primary voters but others will not forgive his 2012 election eve bromance with President Obama, notwithstanding that Mitt Romney has done so.

A world ablaze gives former UN Ambassador John Bolton and South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham a real opening as national security candidates.  The issue will be more important than it has been in any election since 1980.  Walker, Bush, Rubio and Cruz, however, are already invoking Ronald Reagan's robust national security policy as their governing blueprint.  Whoever wins the nomination should consider announcing at the convention that Bolton and Graham will serve as his SECSTATE and SECDEF, respectively.

Former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina has sharpened her stump speech and will garner attention and a debate podium as the only GOP woman in a race overshadowed by Hillary Clinton.  The party will not, however, nominate a candidate who has not won a prior election, no matter how qualified.