As the 2016 White House race begins to form, more than a few dark horse GOP candidates could end up breaking away from the pack.
With the Republican presidential field wide open, the campaign could be a repeat 2012, when even candidates thought to be longshots briefly stole the spotlight and spiked in the polls.
Republican National Committee rules have changed since then, shrinking the debate schedule that gave underdog candidates a chance to leap out front. Still, the lack of any clear front-runners, the rise of single-candidate super-PACs and the ease of reaching voters online with less money and free media makes it easier than ever for anyone to gain traction with a catchy message.
“I don't think anyone would have predicted at this point in 2010 that Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum would have had their days in the sun. No one would have seen that coming. It's wide open,” said Cam Savage, a GOP strategist and former advisor to former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (R).
Here are four potential aspirants whose names aren’t on the regular presidential watch list – but could make some noise if they do decide to run.
Indiana Gov. Mike PenceMike (Michael) Richard PenceChristie to take on role in Trump's fight against opioids: report 3 reasons Devin Nunes must step away from the Trump probe Pence meets his 'second-favorite Ron and Nancy' MORE
PROS: Pence has left the door open to a potential run and could quickly become a fast rising favorite if he joins the fray.
He has a long track record of both social and fiscal conservatism, leading fights against abortion rights and government spending dating back to his time in Congress. The Indiana governor is well-known in Washington, with a solidly conservative record, while his time as governor gives him distance from the unpopular town.
“The most interesting of the [dark horse] candidates right now is Mike Pence,” said the Indiana-based Savage. “People are talking about him very seriously.”
CONS: GOP strategists privately say Pence isn’t sparkling on the stump and lacks a signature achievement as governor. Plus, it’s harder to generate headlines or build a national fundraising base from a mid-sized Midwestern state like Indiana. He’d also have to choose between running for president and running for reelection.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich
PROS: Kasich is sailing to reelection in a perennial swing state as his Democratic opponent’s campaign has completely collapsed, letting him make the argument that he knows how to win on tough terrain.
The former congressman has also taken on the public employee unions, a clarion call issue for the GOP base, and Ohio’s growing economy gives him a good story to tell as a turnaround expert.
CONS: He flamed out quickly in his first stab at a presidential run in 2000. His regular Fox News appearances also give his opponents on the left and right countless hours of footage to comb through, providing fodder for opposition researchers looking to take him down a peg.
Dr. Ben Carson
PROS: Carson is a telegenic and charismatic former neurosurgeon who rose from poverty to become head of Johns Hopkins University’s medical school. He’s become a favorite on the conservative speaking circuit and recently announced plans to keynote a major gathering of Iowa social conservatives —the latest sign he’s looking to gin up talk about a run.
Republicans privately compare him favorably to Cain, as another African American outsider who can appeal to party conservatives’ emotional cores.
CONS: While Carson could create some buzz onstage at a debate, it’s unclear where he’d find the money for an expensive run. His unfiltered speaking style has also landed him in hot water in the past, something that’ll only increase in the glare of a presidential spotlight. A political neophyte, he’s never gone never gone through any serious vetting.
Former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton
PROS: A polished speaker well known to party activists and a leading foreign policy hawk, Bolton could offer a strident debate counter-weight on foreign policy to more libertarian-leaning candidates like Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.).
CONS: Republicans don’t think Bolton has the political skills to make a serious run for president. Many see him more as a neoconservative who could hold libertarians’ feet to the fire during debates more so than someone who might actually build a movement around him.
“Bolton is important to the conversation, but I don't think Bolton is going to gain a lot of ground. The GOP is going to have a discussion about which direction foreign policy goes and Bolton is going to be one of those people in that fight,” said O’Connell.