2016 GOP field grows more crowded

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The Republican presidential field will swell to nine official candidates in the next week as three new contenders enter the race.

Former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), who, in 2012, won the Iowa caucuses and finished second overall to eventual nominee Mitt Romney, is expected to announce his second consecutive presidential bid from Pittsburgh on Wednesday.

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On Thursday, former New York Gov. George Pataki (R), a long shot, will most likely hit the launch button from New Hampshire. 

And Monday, Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey GrahamGun-control supporters plan next steps versus NRA Bipartisan gun measure survives test vote Senate Republicans may defy NRA on guns MORE (R-S.C.) will enter the race from his hometown of Central, S.C., becoming the fourth senator to throw his hat into the ring.

The trio faces an uphill climb in the fight for money, media, and top-level political staffers and advisers.

“This group doesn’t look like it has a real shot at becoming president, but they could be fighting for Cabinet or V.P. slots and can contribute to the debate in different ways by highlighting their views on issues like social conservatism and foreign policy,” said GOP strategist Ron Bonjean.

The most pressing order of business for each contender will be qualifying for the GOP debates. Fox News and CNN are capping the number of candidates for their first debates at 10 — based on national polling numbers. 

Santorum and Graham currently hang on the precipice of the top 10, while Pataki doesn’t register in polls at all.

Of the three, Santorum starts in the best position based on the strength of his 2012 campaign, when he emerged as the most formidable challenger to Romney.

During that campaign, Santorum traveled to all 99 counties in Iowa, ultimately edging Romney in the first-in-the-nation caucus state and pulling from his base of social conservative voters to win 10 states.

He’s kept an aggressive schedule in early 2015, with dozens of trips to test the waters in early-voting states, Iowa and South Carolina in particular.

But Republican strategists say the political terrain he faces in 2016 is much more difficult. They are doubtful he’ll be able to recapture the magic from 2012.

“This field is exponentially stronger, and a lot of his momentum from 2012 was based on the anti-Romney vote. It wasn’t necessarily pro-Santorum,” said Ford O’Connell, a Republican strategist.

Santorum will face stiff competition this go-round from former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who won the Iowa caucuses in 2008 and is likely to swallow up a lot of early support among evangelical voters.

In addition, Sen. Ted CruzTed CruzO'Malley gives Trump a nickname: 'Chicken Donald' Va. GOP delegate files lawsuit over bound convention votes Our most toxic export: American politick MORE (R-Texas) is making an aggressive play for the social conservative mantle, as is grassroots favorite Ben Carson. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) is believed by many to have partywide appeal — among establishment and grassroots Republicans alike.

“Santorum’s performance in 2012 was a credit to his pluck and determination and political skills,” said Republican strategist and writer for The Hill Contributor’s blog Matt Mackowiak. “But it was also a reflection of a weak field and perhaps weak front-runner.

“He hasn’t done much to build on the momentum he had back then,” he added. “He’s going to have trouble breaking through and gaining traction in 2016.”

Still, Santorum has broad name recognition in Iowa and can build off his 2012 campaign infrastructure.

He’s currently in 10th place nationally in the Republican field — right on the edge of qualifying for the debates — with 2.3 percent support, according to the RealClearPolitics (RCP) average of polls.

Perhaps more troubling for Santorum is that he isn’t fairing much better in Iowa, where he’s also in 10th place, with 3 percent support, according to RCP.

Graham, meanwhile, will stake his campaign on foreign policy. He’s currently in Israel, where he will be meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday.

“I’m running because of what you see on television. I’m running because I think the world is falling apart,” Graham said in an appearance on “CBS This Morning” earlier this month. “I’ve been more right than wrong on foreign policy.”

The issue of national security has been at the forefront, as lawmakers debate President Obama’s nuclear talks with Iran, the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs.

Graham also appears to have been spurred to run to thwart the presidential ambitions of his colleague, Sen. Rand PaulRand PaulRepublicans question Trump's trip to Scotland Hate TV customer service? So does your senator Overnight Cybersecurity: Senate narrowly rejects expanding FBI surveillance powers MORE (R-Ky.), whose foreign policy views he believes are dangerous.

“I still feel the main reason he’s running for president is as a protest vote to Rand Paul, but he could wind up turning this into a Cabinet position,” O’Connell said.

To achieve this, Graham will be singularly focused on the primary in his home state of South Carolina, one of four early-voting states expected to winnow the field of contenders.

Here, Republicans will be watching to see if Graham plays the role of spoiler or kingmaker.

“He’s going to impact this race down there somehow, no question,” said Mackowiak.

Graham is currently tied for 12th nationally with only 1.3 percent support, according to the RCP average. A Winthrop University poll from April showed Graham in fourth place in South Carolina, behind Walker, Cruz and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

Pataki has nothing to lose, but his bid has many Republicans scratching their heads.

They say he has an impressive record, having won three terms as governor in deep-blue New York. But he’s fallen off the political scene in the nine years since leaving office.

Pataki will be launching his bid from New Hampshire and banking on support in the Northeast to propel him. He isn’t included in most polls and will struggle just to get into the debates.

“Even New Yorkers have forgotten about him,” said GOP strategist Nino Saviano.