White House hopefuls are coming out of the shadows and going after rivals in their own parties.
It’s the political equivalent of a phony war. The mists are clearing and the leading contenders are conducting daily maneuvers. It’s only a matter of time before full hostilities commence even though there are 840 days until voters select the 45th president.
Former secretary of State Hillary Clinton last week appeared on “The Daily Show” to joke about her desire to work in the Oval Office; New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) headed for the first-to-vote state of Iowa; and Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) exchanged salvos over foreign policy.
Even a second-tier candidate, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D), has attracted the media spotlight with remarks on the immigration crisis that positioned him to the left of President Obama.
Meanwhile, Vice President Biden popped up at a conference of the liberal Netroots Nation in Detroit to remind the audience, “I don’t take a backseat to anyone when it comes to fighting some of the toughest progressive battles the country has seen.”
The contenders are sharpening their arguments and making overtures to would-be kingmakers in key states.
“If politicians were tech startups, this would be the pre-IPO phase,” Democratic strategist Chris Lehane joked.
“This is where you are beginning to go around, showing your start-up has what it takes and that your economics will translate to generate the multiples you want.”
Some start-ups crash, as do some candidates.
O’Malley’s attempt to court liberals by saying that deporting Central American children who cross the border illegally would be tantamount to sending them to “certain death” backfired. The White House, presumably irked by the criticism, swatted him aside by noting that, for all his declared concern, O’Malley had requested that a site in his own state not be used to house any of the children.
There are many ways of failing. Hogan Gidley, a Republican consultant who worked on former Sen. Rick Santorum’s (R-Pa.) 2012 presidential campaign and, before that, for Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R), noted that visits to early-voting states can be a way to gauge support cheaply, or to discover quietly, before the possibility of public humiliation, that the hoped-for backing does not exist.
“If Chris Christie or [Sen.] Marco Rubio [R-Fla.] are going around Iowa, and those people are already sold for Mike Huckabee or Rand Paul, the base of support isn’t there,” Gidley said. “If they decide not to run, they give it the whole, ‘I want to spend more time with my family.’ That may be true — but it’s also code for ‘I’ve tested the waters and they’re freezing cold.’”
Craig Robinson, a former political director of the Iowa GOP, said Christie is only one of several potential candidates who have been rushing to dip a toe in the Hawkeye State’s waters.
“Rick Perry’s Iowa itinerary over the past six months has been crazy; he’s been here a lot. [Louisiana Gov.] Bobby Jindal, too; he spoke at our state convention in June and he is going to be back in August.”
But, Robinson added, there is one candidate who stands out in Iowa.
“The biggest one is Rand Paul. He has staffers under his employ already in Iowa, and I think that is very notable.”
The 2016 jockeying is not all about the geographical territory of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. It is also about warming up donors and clearing a space within a party’s big tent.
Florida-based GOP strategist Rick Wilson said that although a certain number of visits to the key early states are de rigeur, “honestly, the smarter people are also going to Palm Beach and California and to the big money people in Texas and New York. All the local visits and ass-kissing in the world doesn’t matter if you can’t sustain a campaign.”
Political insiders are keeping a close eye on how deftly or clumsily contenders are trying to find their niche.
Rubio has been hawkish on foreign policy issues after taking a beating from the right for his work on the Senate-passed immigration reform bill.
Clinton has stressed her experience, as she did in her 2008 bid; when asked about other potential female candidates, Clinton raised eyebrows by responding, “We have a good bench, so to speak. But they haven’t gone through the fire. Part of the reason why there’s a big drumbeat for me to run is because I’ve done it.”
Some Democrats took that remark as a shot at Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who is being urged by liberal activists to seek the presidency.
Warren insists she won’t run, but she has campaigned for party colleagues in deep-red states, including Kentucky and West Virginia. This may, as claimed, simply demonstrate her desire to bring more Democrats to Capitol Hill. Yet the trips also suggest her appeal is broader than her detractors claim.
Unlike Warren and Clinton, Perry and Paul have taken off the gloves. After Perry attacked Paul’s foreign policy views, the Kentucky senator fired back quickly.
They are fighting over what kind of foreign policy — isolationist or interventionist — the 2016 GOP nominee should espouse, and who can grab the mantle of the party’s great recent hero, President Reagan.
Paul, in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, argued that his reluctance to get involved in foreign conflicts was both prudent and consistent with Reaganite principles. Perry shot back in The Washington Post, writing that when Reagan “drew a ‘red line,’ the world knew exactly what that meant. Paul is drawing his own red line along the water’s edge creating a giant moat where superpowers can retire from the world.”
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who has said he is “good friends” with Paul, has jabbed at the Kentucky senator on Israel and social issues. Paul chided former Gov. Jeb Bush (R) in April. Christie poked at Cruz earlier this year.
There’s more to come.