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The Early Line On The GOP 2016 Presidential Field

November 19, 2014

With midterms over, let’s give political junkies a fix by surveying the emerging GOP presidential field. Twenty-three Republicans have publicly indicated interest (not including Mitt Romney, who says he has no plans to run). Here they are, with strengths and weaknesses.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee is the GOP’s most visible social conservative. Can he reach outside that element of the party?

Californian Carly Fiorina is a businesswoman who broke the glass ceiling in 1999 by becoming Hewlett-Packard ’s CEO, but she will have to explain why the HP board dismissed her in 2005.

Three Floridians may run. A successful former governor, Jeb Bush is a big thinker and effective communicator with a giant fundraising network. But can another Bush win? Freshman Sen. Marco Rubio has worked hard preparing his message, studying issues and thoughtfully speaking out. He is close to Mr. Bush, who would co-opt much of their shared home-state support. Allen West is an articulate conservative, but a one-term congressman who just became president of a Dallas think tank is a long shot.

Georgia’s Herman “9-9-9” Cain is an unlikely contender after he crashed in 2012 over sexual-harassment charges from when he was a trade-association executive, but hints he’ll run.

The strengths of Indiana Gov. Mike Pence include six terms in Congress, and he is an able communicator, but he’s been governor only two years and won just 49% of the vote.

Freshman Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul fearlessly takes his libertarian message to young voters and blacks but makes wild claims—like saying Dick Cheney backed the Iraq war so his former employer (Halliburton) could get billions in contracts—and compensates when his libertarianism bombs by resorting to occasional flip-flops.

Next year is Bobby Jindal ‘s eighth and final year as Louisiana’s governor, where he has focused on jobs and education. His previous Washington service makes him one of the party’s experts on health care. He may not run if other governors—especially Rick Perry —do.

Three Marylanders are contemplating bids. Former United Nations Ambassador John Bolton is an articulate counterweight to Mr. Paul’s neo-isolationism, but can he distinguish himself on domestic issues? Former Johns Hopkins neurosurgeon Ben Carson has exemplary character and criticized President Obama over ObamaCare at a National Prayer Breakfast, but must show he has political smarts in an enterprise where naifs flounder. Bob Ehrlich, the former blue-state governor, has visited New Hampshire but hasn’t offered his candidacy’s rationale.

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder signed right-to-work legislation and adroitly managed Detroit’s bankruptcy. Does he have the energy and presence for a run?

That’s not a question for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who won re-election in a blue-blue state with 60% last year and raised $100 million to elect Republican governors this year. Unanswered is whether his Jersey style sells elsewhere.

New York Rep. Peter King is familiar on cable TV talking about terrorism, but can the former House Homeland Committee chairman raise money and build a national organization? Former New York Gov. George Pataki distinguished himself during 9/11 but must generate early home-state buzz to become viable.

Two Buckeyes are eyeing the contest. Ohio Gov. John Kasich was impressively re-elected with an economic message that appealed to working-class voters and won 25% among blacks. Hyperkinetic, can he be a disciplined candidate? Sen. Rob Portman is a brainy freshman who’s been director of the White House’s Office of Management and Budget, Trade Representative and congressman. Is this experience enough?

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum won Iowa last time, but only after the media said Mr. Romney had won, so many don’t remember his victory. He must beat Mr. Huckabee for the social-conservative mantle and best others to become the top foreign-policy hawk.

Two Texas politicians are running. Rick Perry is the state’s longest-serving governor, as Texas led America in jobs created and economic growth. Will he get a second chance at a better impression after his dismal 2012 showing? The state’s most popular Republican, Sen. Ted Cruz leads the party’s confrontation caucus, but is advocating government shutdowns the path to the GOP nomination or the White House?

Wisconsin could field two candidates. The GOP’s leading theorist and 2012 vice-presidential nominee, Rep. Paul Ryan, can rewrite the tax code as Ways and Means chairman or run for president, but not both. The state’s courageous governor, Scott Walker, reined in public-employee unions with spending reforms, but can he project passion?

Things will be different for 2016: The Republican National Committee wisely restricting the number of debates and delaying primaries until February means candidates must mount real campaigns, not merely raise enough money to fly to the next debate. Polls will be meaningless until later next year, but in two weeks I’ll explore how prospective candidates are faring in the “invisible” primaries now under way or coming soon.

A version of this article appeared November 20, 2014, in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline The Early Line On The GOP 2016 Presidential Field and online at WSJ.com.

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