Seven GOP candidates who could drop from '16 race before Iowa

Seven GOP candidates who could drop from '16 race before Iowa
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Seventeen major Republican candidates are running hard for the White House. But not all will make it to Iowa. 

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Of the crowded 2016 GOP primary field, who will be the first to head for the exits?

It’s impossible to know for sure at this early stage, but a handful of high-profile campaigns are already showing serious signs of strain six months out from Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses on Feb. 1.

Super PACs have changed the game, enabling struggling candidates tochoose to stay in the race as long as they’re propped up by deep-pocketed donors. But as Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich proved in 2012, having a wealthy mega-donor in your corner can’t buy you the nomination.

Here’s The Hill’s look at GOP presidential campaigns that could be over before the Iowa caucuses even get going: 

Rick PerryJames (Rick) Richard PerryPerry seeking to prop up nuclear, coal plants Overnight Energy: Interior watchdog probes Zinke's charter jet use Energy Department backs .7B in loans for Georgia nuclear plant MORE

The former Texas governor generated big headlines this week but for all the wrong reasons. Running out of cash, Perry stopped paying all of his campaign staffers at his campaign headquarters in Austin, as well as his teams on the ground in the early primary states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.

Perry raised a little more than $1 million in the second quarter of 2015, and had about $884,000 cash on hand. He’s now paring back his campaign to a bare-bones operation in order to save it. 

Those steps are a page right out of John McCain’s presidential playbook. The Arizona senator, his campaign coffers nearly dry in the summer of 2007, was forced to lay off top staffers, fly coach on commercial planes, even carry his own bags through airports. He managed to stay in the race, and ended up winning the GOP nomination. 

Many in Perry’s campaign will stay on as volunteers. And the candidate will now have to lean on several super PACs to get his message out and keep his presidential hopes alive. His PACs have already hauled in nearly $17 million this cycle, thanks to a handful of big-money donors, NBC News reported.  

And on Wednesday, he tweeted that “Yesterday was one of our biggest online fundraising days of the campaign.” 

The three-term governor will visit South Carolina and Iowa in the coming days. But if he wants to break out of the bottom tier of candidates, Perry will need to make a big splash at next month’s CNN debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, just as Carly Fiorina did last week. 

“As the campaign moves along, tough decisions have to be made in respect to both monetary and time related resources,” said Perry campaign spokeswoman Lucy Nashed. “Governor Perry remains committed to competing in the early states and will continue to have a strong presence in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.”

Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulHouse bill set to reignite debate on warrantless surveillance Authorizing military force is necessary, but insufficient GOP feuds with outside group over analysis of tax framework MORE 

It’s been a brutal summer for the Paul campaign.  

Fundraising has been disappointing. His poll numbers are heading south. Pundits panned his debate performance last week. And a pair of close Paul associates were indicted by the feds.

Now there are questions are swirling about whether Paul will be able to run for reelection to his Senate seat in Kentucky if his campaign for president fizzles out. 

“I’ve thought Rand has been in trouble for awhile,” said GOP strategist Doug Heye, a former Republican National Committee official.

Presidential rival Ted Cruz, a fellow senator and Tea-Party favorite, has sapped some of Paul’s support, Heye said, and the libertarian-leaning Paul “didn’t come off particularly well” sparring with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie last week over the NSA’s collection of phone records.

“Rand’s support has fallen,” Heye added, “and it’s clear that Cruz is ahead of Rand.”

Perhaps the biggest political headache for Paul has been the Justice Department’s indictment last week of three top aides to his father, Ron Paul, who are alleged to have been involved in illegal campaign work in 2012. One of those charged, Jesse Benton, heads the super PAC backing Rand Paul’s presidential bid.

But Benton’s attorney has said the DOJ probe is politically motivated. And the younger Paul’s campaign says it’s unfazed by the string of setbacks, pointing to “tremendous turnout” at recent campaign events and growing grassroots support.

“We are not worried at all. This is a marathon and not a sprint,” said Paul spokesman Sergio Gor. “Senator Paul is uniquely positioned to do very well in the early states despite what people in the D.C. bubble might say.” 

Bobby Jindal/Rick Santorum 

Four years ago this week, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty made an early exit from the GOP primary race after finishing third in the Iowa Straw Poll.

The Iowa GOP ended the straw poll tradition this year.

It now means there’s no longer a “flashpoint” early in the campaign cycle to drive flailing candidates out of the race. But the monthly GOP debates can serve a similar purpose, especially if networks continue holding separate debates for first-tier and second-tier candidates.

If candidates like Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum can’t break out of the second string — and the “happy hour” or “kids’ table” debate — it will crystallize problems with those campaigns. 

“If you’re a Jindal or you’re a Santorum and you have to be put at the kids table for three or four debates,” Heye said, “you have an existential problem.” 

Asked whether Jindal might exit the race early, chief strategist Curt Anderson replied: “Dumb question.” He said Jindal has "momentum" and is attracting big crowds in Iowa, where the governor just wrapped up a four-day visit.

And Santorum spokesman Matt Beynon pointed out his boss was trailing far behind the pack exactly four years ago, but won the Iowa caucuses and finished as runner-up to GOP nominee Mitt Romney.

“National polls mean absolutely nothing,” said Beynon, who added that Santorun just named his New Hampshire state director and plans to double his Iowa staff. “Unlike other campaigns, Senator Santorum is hiring staff and expanding his operation. Senator Santorum is building the infrastructure he will need to defend his win in Iowa come February.”

Pawlenty, too, argued that no candidate should contemplate dropping out at this stage in the campaign. And if he could have a do-over, he would have stayed in the race, given the fact that that GOP primary dragged out well into the spring of 2012. 

“It’s too early for any serious candidate to think about folding his or her tent unless you or your super PAC are out of money and don’t have any reason to believe you can alter that course,” Pawlenty told The Hill. 

“It is different now. Even if you are out of money and the stories are not helpful,” he added, “a super PAC can sustain you — it at least buys you time.”

Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamDurbin: I had 'nothing to do' with Curbelo snub Republicans jockey for position on immigration Overnight Health Care: House passes 20-week abortion ban | GOP gives ground over ObamaCare fix | Price exit sets off speculation over replacement MORE 

The senior senator from South Carolina knows he’s not going to win the GOP nomination, but that’s not the point.

Graham, a retired Air Force colonel and defense hawk, is in the race to ensure that national security issues — including the war against Islamic State militants — remain front and center in the 2016 campaign. 

But while he’s a regular on the Sunday show circuit, Graham’s celebrity hasn’t translated into support on the campaign trail. In RealClearPolitics’s average of Iowa polling, Graham is in 15th place, with support from just 0.4 percent of likely primary voters. Even in his home state of South Carolina, Graham is in sixth place with 6 percent of the vote.

The one advantage for lower-profile candidates like Graham is that they most likely have lower overhead costs and can be more nimble than behemoth operations like Jeb Bush’s campaign. Graham raised $2.2 million through June, and shifted another $1.5 million from his Senate account. Meanwhile, the super PAC backing Graham, Security is Strength, took in about $2.9 million over the same period. 

“Lindsey is probably self aware about his chances but he is genuinely passionate about national security issues and he wants to animate that in a debate,” Pawlenty said. “Sticking around has a value.”

Jim Gilmore/George Pataki 

Former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore is polling so poorly that Nancy Reagan didn't even invite him to next month’s CNN’s GOP debate at the Reagan Presidential Library. Former New York Gov. George Pataki also barely registers in the latest polls. 

For these politicians who once governed important states, the bad polling numbers are a blow to the ego.

Al Cardenas, a former top RNC official and the former chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, predicted five to six candidates won’t even make it to Iowa. A couple more might drop out immediately after the caucuses, he said. 

Gilmore and Pataki, whose super PACs haven’t raised much money, could be among them.

“Everyone can pretty much crawl into Iowa to test the waters and hope for lightning striking. But Iowa is a caucus state,” Cardenas said. “That requires an army of folks on the ground actually recruiting caucus goers. Without staff, volunteers and resources, that is almost impossible to do.” 

“As lower tier candidates' funds dry up, the press begins to practically ignore them and their staff thins or disappears,” he continued. “It's embarrassing for most candidates in this predicament to depart after Iowa with failure so empirically defined.”