GOP fears '16 free-for-all will help Clinton

GOP strategists are starting to worry that the sheer number of potential candidates for the party’s 2016 presidential nomination could give an advantage to Democrats.

More than two dozen Republicans are eyeing the GOP presidential nomination, while on the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton looks like she could coast to the crown.

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Only a handful of Democrats are even circling Clinton, while the potential GOP field just continues to grow.

“To beat Hillary Clinton in 2016, you need a strong candidate,” GOP strategist Ford O’Connell said of his party’s 2016 contenders. “A crowded field has the potential to give Hillary a bigger leg up than she currently has.”

The contrast poses opportunities and threats for the GOP.

A winning candidate could emerge from a crowded primary stronger and battle tested, much as President Obama was strengthened from a 2008 primary fight with Clinton.

But a crowded primary could also weaken a GOP nominee by extending the fight and exhausting the eventual winner physically and financially.

Or, it could muddle things enough to allow a weaker nominee to emerge.

What’s clear right now is that Democrats and Republicans are looking at very different fields in 2016.

The GOP side is filled with well-known political names.

Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.) has repeatedly said he’s considering the race. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is expected by many to run, while Sen. Ted Cruz (Texas) has sent signals that he’ll be a candidate just four years after his election to the Senate.

Many think former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush will run, and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) had been seen as a strong contender before his image was bruised with the GOP base over immigration reform.

Three 2012 also-rans — Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum — are thought to be mulling the race.

Iowa Rep. Steve King sparked rumors this week of a possible White House bid by announcing a visit to early-primary state South Carolina, while Rep. Pete King (N.Y.) made news last month when he made public his own presidential ambitions.

Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.) was his party’s vice presidential candidate in 2012, a spot that is usually a springboard to becoming a presidential candidate. Govs. John Kasich (Ohio) and Scott Walker (Wis.) also have their supporters.

Then there are long shots like Donald Trump, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.).

This list alone runs to 16 names.

On the other side of the aisle, the field is thin aside from Clinton.

Vice President Biden is the second-most logical candidate after Clinton, but it’s unclear whether he’d challenge the former first lady and secretary of State.

Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley is seen as having an eye for the White House, and strategists point to Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.) and Amy Klobuchar and Govs. Andrew Cuomo (N.Y.) and John Hickenlooper (Colo.) as other possible Democratic candidates — if Clinton backs away.

Recent polling highlights Clinton’s advantage.

A RealClearPolitics average of recent polls shows Clinton besting her nearest Democratic opponent by more than 50 percentage points. The website calculated that, on average, Clinton pulled in 65 percent, versus 9.3 percent for Biden, 2 percent for Cuomo and 0.7 percent for O’Malley.

Some see an advantage for the GOP in having a tougher primary field.

The advantage of a wide-open field is a “healthy” discussion of the future of the party, said GOP strategist John Feehery, a columnist for The Hill.

“It’s a fight for the soul of the party,” Feehery said. “It’s going to be a hell of a primary.”

Others argue that the more splintered the GOP field, the more likely a candidate will be pulled to the right, weakening them for the general election.

This was a problem in 2012 for Mitt Romney, who faced what was a relatively weak Republican field.

He still ended up moving to the right on issues like immigration.

“This cripples you for the general election,” said Massachusetts-based Democratic strategist Mary Anne Marsh.

Polls suggest Christie is Clinton’s closest GOP rival.

A Monmouth University survey from Aug. 5 showed him within striking distance, with Clinton leading Christie 43 percent to 39 percent.

Clinton’s lead over other potential GOP nominees was larger. She led Bush 47percent to 37 percent, Rubio 47percent to 36 percent, and Cruz 48percent to 32 percent.

“There are only a couple of candidates who could conceivably defeat Hillary Clinton,” said O'Connell, pointing to establishment Republicans like Bush and Christie, who appeal to crucial independent and centrist voters.

“As of right now, [a centrist like] Chris Christie though, he's going to have a hard time winning the nomination. Those are not the candidates that are polling the strongest among Republican primary voters.”

If the field doesn’t start to winnow down after the New Hampshire primary, said GOP strategist Craig Robinson, the Tea Party faction of the GOP will “dictate the terms of the Republican nomination process.”

Still, Feehery and others say the 2016 field looks stronger than the group of candidates Romney bested in 2012, and that this could boost the party’s nominee.

“I think it’s different than 2012 because in 2012, you didn’t have very strong candidates,” said Feehery, who noted that several candidates passed on that year’s race.

That resulted in a nominee who was “pretty weak,” he said. This year, “I think the field is going to be a lot stronger,” Feehery said.

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