By Alexander Bolton and Peter Schroeder - 08/31/12 09:04 PM EDT
Vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan leaves Tampa as the biggest winner in the game of presidential speculation.
When it comes to 2016 and beyond, GOP sources say Ryan's performance this week moves him ahead several spots in the pecking order.
Even President Obama's senior campaign adviser David Axelrod noted the phenomenon.
It was "like open mic night for 2016 candidates and not a convention that's aimed at promoting Mitt Romney in 2012,” he said Friday on MSNBC.
But it was Ryan’s Wednesday night speech that was widely acclaimed as a home run and showed he can perform confidently on the national stage.
Ryan also had the air of a presidential candidate Thursday night holding hands with his wife Janna alongside Mitt and Ann Romney while balloons cascaded from the ceiling of the Tampa Bay Times Forum. Indeed the Ryans almost looked like a younger version of the Romneys.
Party veterans think the convention gives Ryan a big boost and could help establish him as the clear frontrunner of a future presidential primary if Romney loses to President Obama in November. If Romney wins, Ryan would be even better positioned.
“The fact that someone can combine the command of policy with a personal presentation is a dynamite combination,” former Rep. Ernest Istook (R-Okla.) said.
“Other people may have their foot in the door but he’s already inside the house visiting with the prospect,” Istook said about Ryan’s lead over other potential future presidential contenders.
Fred Barnes, executive editor of The Weekly Standard said Ryan could be in prime position to run for president.
“He’s where Bush was in 1980 when Reagan picked him and eight years later he’s the nominee,” he said.
But if the Romney-Ryan ticket falls short, getting nominated for vice president “is a lot less of a boost.”
“He will have gotten a boost but not quite the same one,” Barnes added.
Besides the Wisconsin lawmaker, Sen. Marco Rubio’s (R-Fla.) Thursday speech introducing Romney also drew high marks and was warmly received by the crowd.
Rubio also did well by meeting with the South Carolina delegation in Tarpon Springs on Tuesday. Future presidential politics were not too far from his mind as he noted South Carolina’s importance to winning GOP presidential nominations. He quipped: “What’s your state’s motto, ‘We make presidents’?”
But Ryan got in on the action too.
Without a doubt he got the opportunity to meet the party's biggest donors, such as billionaire donor Sheldon Adelson, who was spotted entering the Tampa Bay Times Forum with an entourage on Thursday evening. Republican-allied super-PACs held fundraisers throughout the week, according to a GOP strategist.
Building a national fundraising network, which Rubio and Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), who also addressed the convention, already have, is an important step for Ryan who has had to contend with the limits of being a member of the House.
Republicans also had high expectations for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s keynote address but many were disappointed. Some critics grumbled he focused too much on himself and not enough on Romney while others thought he went too easy on President Obama.
“I don’t think he hurt himself with the speech really but I don’t think it really was as productive as some people thought it might be,” Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio) said.
Barnes said New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, who like Rubio is seen as a promising GOP liaison to Hispanic voters, emerged as perhaps biggest winner simply because she was little known outsider New Mexico before this week.
One senior Republican strategist, however, said former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who spoke Thursday evening, remains the heavy favorite in 2016 if he chooses to run should Romney lose.
“Jeb Bush is the granddaddy of them all,” said the strategist, who emphasized the importance of Hispanic voters and Bush’s fluent Spanish.
Bush has one of the most established political networks of any Republican, with a deep stable of donors and savvy strategists. But the Bush name is a serious drag on his future political aspirations, as one senator noted to The Hill earlier this year. The party may decide the dynastic implications of trying to place a third Bush in office would turn off voters.
While many inside the Beltway believe Ryan holds several excellent advantages over the rest of the future GOP field, rank-and-file delegates in Tampa said the party’s next nominee is far from settled.
In fact, several delegates highlighted Condoleezza Rice’s well-received remarks Wednesday, showing that Ryan was not the only one to curry favor with Republicans with a strong speech. Rubio and Martinez were also noted as people to watch by delegates.
But they all spoke highly of Ryan and view him as a bright light even if they are not yet ready to hand off the torch to any one up-and-coming Republican, no matter how much they loved his speech.
“I think he’s great. I think he’s wonderful. But I don’t think that gives him a lock,” said Diana Bratli of Lakeville, Minnesota. “It’s a wide open field.”
“He’s on the national ticket. In terms of jockeying for position, that would give you the inside lane, but I think there are several,” said Pennsylvania delegate Charlie Gerow. “It’s just going to be a question of who can capture the hearts, minds and imaginations of a new breed of voters.”