Countdown to Iowa: Ranking the Republican field one year out

Greg Nash, Getty

Mitt Romney’s exit on Friday from the 2016 GOP presidential field could be several other possible candidates’ gain. 

The 2012 nominee’s decision spares Republicans a heavyweight fight between Romney and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush for donors and operatives. 

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But Romney’s departure also resonates further down the ladder, giving new life to candidates that had been stuck in the shadows. 

Based on interviews with several GOP strategists, these are candidates ranked in the strongest positions to win the nomination with just a year to go until the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 1, 2016. 

Jeb Bush

Even before Romney’s decision, Bush was already having success at poaching onetime Romney allies. This week he landed former top Romney Iowa advisor David Kochel, who signed on to be Bush’s senior political strategist with the plan of moving into the role of his eventual campaign manager.

Bush has maneuvered early and aggressively into the fray, effectively moving up the timeline for others to enter the field. The nucleus of his campaign team has already assembled in Tallahassee to launch his leadership PAC and to lay the framework for his likely candidacy.

He’s also in the early stages of reaching out to early voting states. Bush signaled he intends to be a player in the Iowa caucuses when he phoned the Iowa GOP chairman earlier this month. 

He’ll also begin ramping up his public profile soon, giving a speech at the Republican National Committee spring retreat in March. In April, Bush is expected to make his first political trip to New Hampshire in more than a decade for an event sponsored by the state’s Republican Party.

 “The next key date for Bush will be July when his fundraising numbers come out,” said GOP strategist Ford O’Connell. “We’ll see how close he gets to his goal of raising $100 million.”

Scott Walker

The Wisconsin governor arrived with a bang this week. Walker did the most of any candidate to boost his 2016 chances with a rousing speech at the Iowa Freedom Summit.

The address went a long way to dispelling the notion that he’s too boring to compete with the GOP’s bigger personalities. 

“He did himself a tremendous favor showing passion and drive in that speech in Iowa,” said Republican strategist Ron Bonjean. “Some people were concerned he didn’t have enough gusto or pizzazz, but he knocked it out of the park.”

Strategists say Walker falls into the party’s sweet spot – they believe he can pull support from both the establishment and the Tea Party wings.

Walker launched a fundraising committee this month and impressed political watchers with his hire of Rick Wiley, a former Republican National Committee political director, to potentially run his campaign.

With Romney out, some big donors and operatives are freed up to give Walker another look. He’s created a buzz among Republican lawmakers in Washington, and in interviews he’s come off as a gritty fighter, saying he shouldn’t be “underestimated.” 

“He’ll be there at the end, he’s built for the long haul,” said GOP strategist Matt Mackowiak. “He’s rare a governor that has a national fundraising base because he’s been such a target of the left. Being from the Midwest is very appealing, he could help us change the map.”

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Nobody knows exactly what to make of Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.).

Republicans arguably know more about what his campaign will look like than any of the other candidates – he’s hired a campaign manager, his digital strategy has come into view, and he test drove his message of minority outreach and economic opportunism at a campaign style trip through New Hampshire this month.

But will his libertarian-leaning message and anti-interventionist foreign policy sell in the primaries?

Paul was literally surrounded by GOP opposition to his foreign policy views at the Freedom Partners summit last Sunday, when he was seated between Sen. Marco RubioMarco RubioFlorida: 'High likelihood' of first Zika transmission in the US Overnight Healthcare: Rubio presses Obama to spend Zika money | FDA moves ahead with trans fat ban The Trail 2016: Her big night MORE (R-Fla.) and Sen. Ted CruzTed Cruz100 days to go in volatile race Voting Trump because of the Supreme Court isn't enough Trump blames GOP as Dems top RNC ratings MORE (R-Texas). The stark contrast between Paul and many in the Republican Party was on full display in matters ranging from Cuba to Iran.

Still, GOP strategists say he has more “range” than maybe any other candidate. If his strong base of supporters, bolstered by the political following of his father, former Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), turns out early, he is the only candidate that even has a shot at running the table in the first primaries and caucuses in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada. 

Marco Rubio

Rubio is another candidate that Republicans believe has crossover appeal and could garner establishment support while energizing the base.

His  fiery opposition to the president’s move to normalize relations with Cuba reminded many in the party that he’s one of the most effective communicators they have and that he has a strong personal story to tell.

“If Rubio rises, it will be on the back of national security and the fact he has potentially one of the most, if not the most, compelling narratives,” O’Connell said.

Rubio impressed the donors at a summit on Sunday sponsored by Freedom Partners, a group backed by the billionaire Koch brothers, winning their straw poll. Rubio has instructed his staff to proceed as if he’s running for president and spent the week courting donors in California and Florida. 

The big question hanging over his head is whether his political skills will be enough to keep him upright in a fight against Bush, whose Sunshine State operations and donor base will be difficult for him to compete with.

Chris Christie

Romney’s exit is great news for the New Jersey governor, who has been overshadowed by the Bush-Romney struggle for the establishment mantle.

With Romney gone, Christie now becomes the second biggest name in the field for establishment-minded Republicans and he can tap into Romney’s Northeast donor base. 

Christie has been hampered by duties at home and has been slow to make more overt moves like Bush or Paul. But he impressed many Republicans by showing up at the Iowa Freedom Summit, an event known for showcasing candidates that are more aligned with the Tea Party. His speech that displayed his straight-talking, everyman persona was well-received in what could have been a hostile room. 

Christie launched a PAC last week and he’s been a road warrior, taking a victory lap for his stint as chairman of the Republican Governors Association. The RGA’s overwhelmingly successful 2014 cycle earned Christie chits and connected him to a national donor base.

Ted Cruz

Cruz made a splash at the Iowa Freedom Summit, arguably getting the best reception of anyone there. He also put in a strong performance at the Freedom Partners summit the next day. 

Republican strategists say he’s the leader right now among the party’s right-wing base. 

“He has a path to be the conservative grassroots candidate, so I expect the establishment will be going after him, “ Mackowiak said. “If he gets a head of steam, watch out, because he’ll be dynamite in a debate. He might have the most pure political talent of anyone in the field.”

Mike Huckabee

The former Arkansas governor made a serious statement about his potential candidacy when he left his successful Fox News show to explore a potential bid.

He still rallies evangelical and grassroots voters better than almost anyone else, although some Republicans believe Cruz and Dr. Ben Carson have stolen some of his clout. 

And his problems with fiscal conservatives and skeptics that he's really had a change of heart on Common Core could also haunt him. 

Still, Republicans say he shouldn’t be underestimated. He could easily catch fire in Iowa, which he carried in 2008, or South Carolina. and Republicans believe that this time around he’ll be better funded than he was last time, when the weight of Sen. John McCain’s establishment support ultimately crushed his upstart campaign.

Ben Carson

Carson has a huge following among social conservatives and he’s the most prominent African American in the GOP. 

The physician also has a compelling back-story that’s beloved by his legions of followers. Carson grew up in poverty in Detroit and emerged as one of the most respected neurosurgeons in the world.

Still, Republicans will remain skeptical of his candidacy until he proves he has the capacity to build a political infrastructure that can endure through the primaries.

“I’m not convinced he has a presidential-level campaign organization,” Mackowiak said. “He’ll raise significant money online, but he needs to find a way to convince some more experienced people to be part of his efforts.”

Rick Perry

These are strange days for Rick Perry. He left the governor’s mansion in Texas this month and has a federal indictment hanging over his head.

But Perry has been preparing for another presidential run since his disastrous showing in 2012, and he’s impressed with his broader grasp of the issues. 

Still, Republicans think he’ll have a hard time shaking his reputation as the “oops” candidate.

“He’s a political animal and one of the few guys who actually likes to campaign,” O’Connell said. “But with so many choices this go around, his one real chance to win was probably in 2012.”

Rick Santorum, Mike Pence, John Kasich

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum emerged as the most formidable challenger to Romney in 2012 and he appears to be seriously considering another run. But he’ll be fighting for the same voters as Cruz, Huckabee and Carson. His speech at the Iowa summit last weekend largely fell flat, and it could be a troubling omen if he hopes to make lightening strike twice. 

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence and Ohio Gov. John Kasich are among the GOP’s stable of conservative Midwestern governors, but neither has made moves into the field and they both suffer from low name recognition.

A previous version of this story said Bush's PAC will release its fundraising numbers in April. The story has been updated to reflect that those numbers will be released in July.