‘16 GOP hopefuls try to break into the top
© Greg Nash

The bulk of the 2016 GOP oxygen so far has been focused on former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. 

The two frontrunners will overlap this weekend in New Hampshire with campaign events, but there’s still a huge field of other likely rivals stuck in the Bush-Walker shadow as they await an opening.

There are sure to be twists, turns and surprises throughout the next year, and candidates haven’t even officially announced yet. But for now, here’s a look at what other candidates are doing to break into the top of the shadow primary. 

Chris Christie

The New Jersey governor has the most at stake right now since he’s competing directly with Bush and Walker for many of the same donors, political operatives and establishment-minded conservative voters.

This week, Christie allies launched a super-PAC to lure the big-dollar donors that could help sustain him through the primaries.


Bloomberg obtained the names of 43 early donors to Christie’s leadership PAC, including wealthy Texas oilman Al Hill Jr., St. Louis financier Jeffrey Fox, former Mitt Romney fundraiser Jim Klote, and financial industry heavyweights Nick Loeb and Chris Vincze on the East Coast.

The Wall Street Journal also reported that Christie has added three veterans of former President George W. Bush’s campaign team to his growing political operations at Leadership Matters for America.

Those developments could go a long way to dispelling the notion that Christie has already been squeezed out by his competitors.

Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulPompeo lacks votes for positive vote on panel CIA declassifies memo on nominee's handling of interrogation tapes Overnight Defense: House to begin work on defense policy bill | Panel to vote Monday on Pompeo | Trump to deliver Naval Academy commencement speech | Trump appeals decision blocking suspected combatant's transfer MORE 

The Kentucky senator is forging his a path to the nomination that focuses heavily on technology, young voters, and minority outreach.

On Friday, Paul made his pitch on criminal sentencing reform to a group at the historically black Bowie State University, arguing that mandatory minimum sentences and other laws have created a situation that is “somewhat like segregation.”

This weekend, Paul will open an office at a startup incubator in Austin, Texas, the hometown of his highly touted digital strategist, Vincent Harris. 

Later, he’ll appear at the popular South by Southwest music festival where he’ll discuss “how technology has transformed politics, campaigning, governing, and citizen engagement.”

Paul won the straw poll at the Conservative Political Action Conference two weeks ago, and his digital, youth and minority engagement efforts will leave him well-positioned to build on the grassroots network left behind by his father, former Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas).

Ben Carson

Republican strategists will remain skeptical of Carson’s longterm prospects until he can prove capable of supplementing his grassroots support with the kind of campaign operations worthy of a top flight candidate.

The retired neurosurgeon made a flurry of key hires in recent weeks that could help him do just that.

In late February, Carson hired two national fundraisers, and this month he Carson brought on a communications director — critical for his potential campaign since the former neurosurgeon has a knack for generating controversial headlines.

Carson also recently brought on two senior advisers — Ed Brookover, the former head of the Republican National Committee’s political operations, and Mike Murray, the president and CEO of TMA Direct, a direct marketing firm.

The growing political team will look to build on a draft movement already underway that has hauled in millions and claims a presence in all 99 of Iowa’s counties.

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The Florida senator may have the most buzz of any candidate not currently sitting at the top.

Rubio recently completed a book tour that took him to the first four caucus and primary states, and he’s impressed wealthy donors and key activists in addresses at a Koch brothers confab in California, a Club for Growth event in Florida and an American Enterprise Institute gathering in Georgia.

Rubio has been pulling together a top flight political team staffers, recently bringing on Rich Beeson, a senior adviser to Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign, and Jim Merrill, who ran Romney’s operations in New Hampshire in 2008 and 2012.

Political analysts will be watching closely to see if Rubio can compete with Walker and Bush for money, and he appears to be well on his way. The Washington Post reported that Florida billionaire Norman Braman is ready to drop $10 million into a potential Rubio campaign.


Rubio has benefitted from heavy focus on foreign policy in the early stages of the 2016 campaign cycle, as well the GOP’s return to its hawkish roots. He’s also seeking to establish himself legislatively, rolling out a tax reform plan last week.

Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzCruz's Dem challenger slams Time piece praising Trump Race for Republican Speaker rare chance to unify party for election 32 male senators back Senate women's calls to change harassment rules MORE

Republican strategists say not to sleep on Cruz, who they believe has as good a chance as any of the contenders running on the socially conservative track to catch fire in the early-voting states.

Cruz seems intent to not disappoint, tossing red meat to anyone who will listen.

At the first-ever Ag Summit in Iowa last weekend, Cruz demanded the Justice Department investigate Democratic frontrunner Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonGeorge HW Bush wears 'book socks' to Barbara Bush's funeral to honor her passion for literacy Obamas, Clintons to attend funeral of Barbara Bush Hillary Clinton to fundraise in DC for public charter high school MORE’s use of a personal email account as Secretary of State.

He later suggested that the Justice Department’s charges against Sen. Robert MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezPoll: Menendez has 17-point lead over GOP challenger Russian attacks on America require bipartisan response from Congress Justice Dept intends to re-try Menendez in corruption case MORE (D-N.J.) were political retribution against the New Jersey Democrat for criticizing the White House’s negotiations with Iran.

And as the new chairman of the Senate Space, Science, and Competitiveness Subcommittee, Cruz is using his post to urge NASA to focus less on climate change and more on space exploration.

It doesn’t always work — Cruz’s knocks against President Obama, Hillary Clinton, and the IRS fell flat when he addressed the International Association of Firefighters this week, a tough labor crowd for the GOP. 

Cruz is following up his trip to Iowa last weekend with stops in New Hampshire and South Carolina in the coming days.

Mike Huckabee

The former Arkansas governor is expected to pull heavily from evangelical voters again. 

To zero in on that bloc, Huckabee went to Israel with other religious conservatives last month rather than attend the Conservative Political Action Conference earlier this month. 

Huckabee’s popularity with the base has proven durable, but  many fiscal conservatives like the Club for Growth remain heavily opposed to the 2008 runner-up. 

This time, he’s presently in third place in a McClatchy-Marist poll released earlier this month, trailing only Bush and Walker.