The First Tier:
Wisconsin governor Scott Walker. Forget everything you’ve heard about him being uncharismatic or a boring speaker — he wowed the crowds in Iowa this weekend. He’s in the sweet spot, serious and accomplished enough for the “Establishment,” and indisputably conservative enough for the grassroots. (Rush Limbaugh just declared, “Scott Walker is the blueprint for the Republican party if they are serious about beating the Left.”) He’s been tested like few others in the field; the Left threw everything it had at this guy and he’s still going strong.
Florida senator Marco Rubio. Watch him tear into the Obama administration giving away the store on Cuba, and see a Republican contender who understands some key lessons about freedom, evil in the world, U.S. power, and leverage. He’s arguably the best communicator in the Republican party, and the GOP desperately needs a good communicator as its nominee. With rave reviews from Charles Krauthammer and James Pethokoukis, he could end up being the conservative pundits’ favorite choice. Yes, there’s still irritation about the “Gang of Eight” immigration proposal, and the Obama presidency has encouraged skepticism about whether senators are ready for the presidency. But he’s been speaking about the broad, unifying national theme of American exceptionalism since 2010 — and obviously, he offers a fantastic contrast with Hillary. He’ll vivisect her record as secretary of state and make her look ancient by comparison.
Former Texas governor Rick Perry. Don’t be fooled into thinking one debate answer defines the man. A lot of things went wrong for Perry in 2012 — a late start, insufficient preparation on national policy, and a slow recovery from back surgery. This time he brings back a sterling economic record, a pugnacious record of going toe-to-toe with the Obama administration consistently, and a warmer, funnier attitude that brought enough charm to work on Jimmy Kimmel. Now we’ll see just how much the hipster glasses help.
Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal: Sure, nobody else puts him in the first tier. As with Perry, some folks think a long-ago disappointing moment on the national stage defines him. But he’s built an indisputably conservative record while his state has enjoyed an economic comeback. There’s probably not another contender who knows more details about more policies, and he’s guided his state through some severe challenges — post-Katrina rebuilding, a pair of serious hurricanes, the Deepwater Horizon explosion and the drilling moratorium. What’s more, he’s been fighting the administration on issues like school choice for years, and he moves fast when an opportunity opens like the House GOP botching a late-term abortion bill.
The Second Tier:
Former Florida governor Jeb Bush: Sure, he’ll have the money, and he’ll have the name. But let’s not even get into the immigration, Common Core, business ties, or family-dynasty issues yet. The boss recently labeled Jeb Bush “a pre-Obama conservative” — an accurate way of describing his gubernatorial record. But the pre-Obama era of American politics feels like a long time ago. Republican primary voters, particularly conservative ones, think that the Obama presidency is the worst calamity to hit America in their lifetimes, and fear it is doing permanent damage to our national values, identity, and standing in the world. GOP primary voters are going to want a fighter; do they feel like Jeb Bush has been leading the fight against Obama?
Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney: Yes, just about every Republican deeply and fervently wishes he won last time. But when people go up to Romney and tell him, “Governor, I really wish you had won in 2012,” they’re not saying, “Governor, I think you would have been one of the greatest presidents in our lifetimes.” They’re saying, “Governor, Obama is really, really, really terrible, and electing you would have spared the country a lot of pain.” Yes, he was right about topics from Russia to keeping a force of troops in Iraq to giving veterans vouchers for health care to get out of the VA backlog. But a lot of other Republicans agreed with those positions, too. He’s a good man, but a lot of Republicans are ready to move on to new options. Plus, you know . . . Gruber.
New Jersey governor Chris Christie: A man without an obvious starting slot, particularly if both Bush and Romney are both in and vacuuming up the money from the party’s biggest donors and the Wall Street crowd. He did better in his Iowa appearance than some might have expected, and he’s undoubtedly going to be a dominant figure in the debates. But he’s positioned himself in opposition to the rest of the party way too often, and you can’t win the GOP nomination from the Jon Huntsman slot, as the Republican nominee most acceptable to the Acela class that can’t stand Republicans.
Kentucky senator Rand Paul: He’ll have his dad’s network, and he’s way more compelling than his father ever was. There’s undoubtedly room for Libertarian-minded candidates in the modern Republican party, but that philosophy isn’t anywhere near a majority yet. Quasi-isolationist non-interventionism looks best in times of peace and prosperity, and the odds are good that the world will grow even more chaotic and violent in Obama’s final two years in office.
Texas senator Ted Cruz: If only conservatives voted, Cruz would be a heavy favorite. But there are a lot of not-quite-so-conservatives voting, particularly in places like New Hampshire, and remember that in South Carolina McCain won and Romney came in second. Cruz has an ability to fire up the grassroots on par with 2008–09 era Sarah Palin, but he’ll have an easier path to becoming king-maker than a path to becoming king.
Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee: He will easily get elected president of Socially Conservative America, and if he puts all of his time and effort into Iowa, you might as well award him a win in the caucuses now. The problem is that the road for an outspoken social-conservative candidate like Huckabee or Rick Santorum gets a lot harder after the Iowa caucuses. You have to wonder how Huckabee and Santorum would compete for the same donors and base of support — whether they would be natural allies or increasingly hostile rivals.
Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum: There are some who contend that Santorum has a much wider and deeper base of support than Huckabee does; we’ll probably see if that’s the case in the coming year. It will be fascinating to see if pro-life Catholics gravitate to Santorum and pro-life Evangelicals gravitate to Huckabee.
Dr. Ben Carson: He’s got buckets of charisma and a dedicated fan base, but some primary voters are going to be wary of nominating a candidate who has zero experience in government. Plus . . . you know.
The Third Tier, at least until they announce:
Carly Fiorina: Whether she is open about it or not, she’s running for vice president, not president. At first glance, she seems easy to dismiss — a failed Senate candidate who is best remembered for the “Demonsheep” ad. But the former Hewlett Packard CEO has a broader and more interesting résumé than you might think — member of the CIA’s External Advisory Board, committee adviser to Condoleezza Rice, senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies — and despite the “nice” CEO image, she’s fearless on the attack — tearing into Hillary for lack of accomplishments, ripping liberals for hypocrisy on abortion, challenging Valerie Jarrett on live television about unequal pay for women at the White House. A cancer survivor with a great personal success story, she may be a much more serious contender for the slot than most people think right now.
Ohio governor John Kasich. Any time you’re a two-term governor of a really important swing state, reelected in a landslide, you’re going to generate some buzz. He’s got fans in some unexpected places, like Allen West. He’s eliminated the estate tax, enacted a $5.3 billion income-tax cut, and the Ohio unemployment rate is down considerably. (LeBron came back on his watch!) He’s got that blue-collar bowling-league Middle-American style, which could contrast nicely with Hillary Rodham $200,000-per-speech-to-Goldman-Sachs Clinton. But here come those big weaknesses: He’s a fan of increasing taxes on cigarettes, and he wants to increase the state’s severance tax on oil and gas profits. The charter-school experiment in Ohio has had some embarrassing failures and disappointments, and Kasich has been leading a crackdown on under-performing charter schools. He expanded Medicaid eligibility, and perhaps most problematically, he’s defended his expansion of Medicare under Obamacare as the Christian thing to do, a position likely to irritate Christian critics of Obamacare.
Indiana governor Mike Pence: At first glance, Pence could be another one of those party-unifying governors, with sufficient conservative bona fides and a serious record of accomplishments in an economically resurgent state. But as Veronique de Rugy contends, the conservative, principled, willing-to-cross–President Bush Mike Pence of Congress has taken a different approach to running Indiana. Like Kasich, he expanded Medicaid; he and his administration insist that a series of reforms make it distinct from a full embrace of Obamacare, but other conservatives insist that this is an expansion of Medicaid to hundreds of thousands of people with a different name. He loudly opposed Common Core, then replaced it with a proposal that NRO’s Stanley Kurtz characterized as “installing second-rate standards that are little more than Common Core rebranded.”
If nothing else, his proposed state-run news outlet would give “Pence for President 2016” good coverage.
— Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot on NRO.