In early December 2005, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani led the CNN/USA Today/Gallup GOP primary matchup for 2008. Barack Obama wasn't even included in its Democratic survey, and Hillary Clinton had as much support as her opponents combined. This is a useful reminder that Republicans mentioned as 2016 presidential contenders should pay no attention to current primary head-to-head polls.
Yet the coming year does present two significant challenges—and opportunities—for anyone hoping to be the GOP's standard-bearer in 2016.
The first is to make 2014 about something bigger, more important and more inspiring than personal ambition. This will require presidential aspirants to promote bold ideas, identify with big causes, and exhaust themselves in raising money and enthusiasm for GOP candidates for Congress and governorships.
Acting selflessly to elect others is the most self-interested thing presidential hopefuls can do in 2014. Most Americans won't be paying attention to their activities. But some opinion shapers, party leaders, elected officials, activists and fundraising bundlers will.
The success of a presidential primary campaign depends upon early supporters who are generous and enthusiastic enough to get the campaign started, and confident and committed enough to grow it over time. Next year is when serving other candidates and honing a persuasive message will win the loyalty of these early supporters.
Some prospective candidates will be tempted to spend much of 2014 in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, the three earliest contests. Resist the temptation. Those who don't resist could find themselves without the necessary national network to win the nomination—and with a reputation for being self-obsessed.
By virtue of his perch as chairman of the Republican Governors Association, Chris Christie can barnstorm the 30 states with gubernatorial elections next year. The vice-chairmen of the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee,Ted Cruz and Rob Portman, will have many opportunities to help in the critical battle for the upper chamber. Sen.Rand Paul, a leader of the party's libertarian element, and Sen. Marco Rubio, a tea party favorite, can also have a significant impact on the midterms. All can boost their 2016 chances by making it about the GOP team next year, not themselves.
To rise from being mentioned to being a plausible candidate, Govs. John Kasich, Susana Martinez, Brian Sandoval, Rick Snyder and Scott Walker have to get re-elected next year by healthy margins and with messages that inspire Republicans beyond their states. Rep. Paul Ryan must similarly win re-election while also leading the GOP in the congressional budget battles.
As important as past accomplishments is the ability to lay out a vision that captures the imagination of Americans. Elections are almost always about the future, not the past.
Govs. Bobby Jindal and Rick Perry, former governors Jeb Bush and Mike Huckabee, and former Sen. Rick Santorum do not have re-election campaigns. Their best chance to become top contenders is to say exactly what's on their minds, to speak as liberated rather than programmed, and to do all they can to advance the party's cause in the midterm elections.
The second challenge is for each potential candidate to strengthen his skills.
All of the likely candidates have won in a state or district, but that's nothing like a start-to-finish presidential contest. Some candidates have experienced this grueling process, but everyone will benefit from road-testing themes, messages and applause lines. They need to avoid saying stupid things and reinforcing stereotypes. In politics, practice doesn't make perfect, but it does make better.
They should use next year to give substantive speeches linking philosophy and policy, and to broaden their fundraising networks. Large Internet and mailing lists are not enough. And they need to take the measure of advisers and aides, finding out who rises and who shrinks when facing the challenges of a national campaign. At the end of next year, some of the candidates will have exceeded the expectations of those paying attention.
It will not be easy for Mrs. Clinton or Vice President Joe Biden to escape the mounting rubble of the Obama presidency. This makes the GOP nomination a likely ticket to the White House. And even at this early stage the Republican presidential field is showing depth and potential, generating genuine excitement among grass-roots Republicans. We'll know better by next December which ones have the stature—and the staying power—to go the distance.
A version of this article appeared December 5, 2013, in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline The First Steps to the 2016 GOP Nomination and online at WSJ.com.