Jeb Bush jumps to the front of Republicans' 2016 race

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Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush is suddenly leading the pack of 2016 presidential hopefuls in the Republican Party.

A CNN/ORC poll released on Sunday found Bush with the support of 23 percent of Republicans, 10 percentage points higher than his nearest rival, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

The poll provided further evidence of how Bush has shaken up the field since his announcement he's "actively exploring" a presidential bid, an aggressive early move that thrilled the donor class.

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The field is in a state of flux, however, with rivals such as Sens. Marco RubioMarco RubioPoll: Rubio holds massive lead in primary Rubio: Turkey attack 'directed' by ISIS Trump: Rivals who don't back me shouldn't be allowed to run for office MORE (R-Fla.) and Rand PaulRand PaulTrump's new digital strategist quickly leaves campaign Trump: Rivals who don't back me shouldn't be allowed to run for office Trump hires Rand Paul's former digital director: report MORE (R-Ky.) also raising their profiles and courting support.

Here’s how the candidates stack up as 2014 draws to a close. 

The establishment front-runner: Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush

Bush made a big splash with his recent moves, not least because they underlined he was earnest about running.

Many people had been skeptical that the former governor was going to mount a White House bid. But his decision to release a new e-book as well as hundreds of thousands of emails from his time as governor signaled that he was moving toward a run, and his surprise declaration on Facebook put an exclamation point on his interest in the race.

“Jeb might have had the best moment. He signaled to donors that he's serious about the race,” said GOP strategist Ford O’Connell. “He's in pole position. ... His declaration makes him an ever-so-slight front-runner.”

It remains an open question how well Bush adapts to the speed of modern campaigning, however. His last campaign — a successful run for his second gubernatorial term — was in 2002.

Also open to question is how well he does with a GOP base that remains dubious about his positions on immigration and Common Core education standards. 

But for now, he’s the leading contender and the favorite of the GOP establishment.

 

Media-savvy scrappers: Sens. Rand Paul (Ky.) and Marco Rubio (Fla.)

Paul and Rubio used a December media war to boost their presidential standings and enter 2015 as serious contenders for the nomination.

The two sparred on Twitter and television over Cuba policy, with Rubio emerging as a leading critic of the Obama administration’s moves toward normalizing diplomatic relations and Paul responding by slamming the current policy as a Cold War-era relic.

The back and forth commanded a lot of media attention, and it elevated both candidates.

“It's good to get that kind of heavy coverage especially if it's issue-oriented and you do a good job at explaining your position, which they both did,” said GOP strategist Charlie Black, a veteran of a number of presidential campaigns.

Paul has shown the most social media savvy among potential 2016 contenders. His team counterpunched at Bush right away, buying Google ads for Bush’s name that encouraged searchers to “join a movement working to shrink government, not grow it” on the same day as the former governor’s Facebook announcement. Paul also reprised his annual Festivus “airing of grievances,” showing off his humorous side.

Rubio has emerged as a leading interventionist voice on foreign policy, a role that could help boost his standing with donors as well as more hawkish base voters. Cuba gives him a potent way to keep growing his profile.

Rubio would be disadvantaged if Bush runs, because their financial networks overlap and he’d have to find the money for a campaign elsewhere. But he’s done everything he can to reposition himself within the party after his immigration push hurt him with the base in 2013.

Paul won 6 percent support in the CNN poll, compared to 5 percent for Rubio.

 

Governors looking for oxygen: New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence

Bush’s announcement was aimed, at least in part, at preventing big donors from committing to other candidates and preemptively jabbing other contenders who were making a play for the establishment class. That undercuts a number of GOP governors, with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) at the top of the list.

Others who could be hurt by Bush’s move include Walker, Jindal, Perry, Kasich and Pence, all of whom need to develop national fundraising bases if they’re going to break out of the crowded field.

Christie, who had presided over a very successful tenure as chairman of the Republican Governors Association, was banking on being the favorite of East Coast donors, and Bush’s moves make that much harder to achieve. He’s also no longer the highest-profile center-right candidate, and New Jersey’s struggling economy is a problem as he gears up for a run. 

Walker finishes 2014 in a strong position following his comfortable reelection win in November. But it’s unclear whether he has serious plans to make a presidential run — and, if he does, whether he can raise the funds to match his ambitions.

Pence is well-liked by those who know him but there is some doubt as to whether he is really interested in a White House quest. Kasich has taken heat on the right for his views on Medicaid expansion. Both have low profiles nationally.

Jindal and Perry are hurt by Bush’s moves. Both seem to be leaning toward running and are hoping to emerge as palatable candidates to both the GOP base and more moderate voters. But it will be even harder to gain traction in a crowded field, and both need to catch some breaks to have a real shot at the nomination.

 

Brawlers for the base: Sen. Ted CruzTed CruzLynch pressured to recuse herself after Clinton tarmac meeting The Trail 2016: Meet and greet and grief Trump to meet with Senate GOP next week MORE (Texas), former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Dr. Ben Carson, former Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.)

None of these candidates is likely to win the nomination — but all could be major players in early-voting Iowa and South Carolina.

Huckabee heads into 2015 in the strongest position of the group. Iowa polling has shown him at or near the top of the field in a state he won in 2008, he is in near-perfect alignment with the religious conservative movement, and he’s working hard to establish his fiscal conservative bona fides. Many strategists remain unconvinced he’ll run, however.

Cruz finishes 2014 on a low note, having had to apologize to his GOP Senate colleagues after his move aimed at blocking President Obama’s executive actions on immigration backfired, giving Democrats the time to confirm a number of judges that otherwise would have gone unconfirmed. He’s still beloved by parts of the GOP base but hasn’t shown any real ability to grow his appeal beyond hardcore conservatives.

Carson is on the rise. A biographical video of the former surgeon has captured the imagination of some conservative activists, and he has some high-profile speaking engagements lined up in Iowa. But he has a lot of work to do before he resembles a truly plausible candidate.

Santorum has spent plenty of time in Iowa but is struggling for air. He’ll need to catch lightning in a bottle for the second cycle in a row to become a major player in 2016.