Marco Rubio takes early edge in Republican pundit primary
© Greg Nash

On newspaper pages and online, the pundit primary is heating up in the Republican Party. 

The views of conservative columnists such as George Will, Charles Krauthammer, Bill Kristol, Stephen Hayes, and Jonah Goldberg will shape the way donors and party leaders view the 2016 candidates.

Here’s a look at the GOP hopefuls who, for better or worse, are getting the most attention from these influential thinkers:

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The Florida senator is running away with this contest.

The buzz for Rubio began back in 2012 as Republicans sought to regroup after President Obama’s diverse coalition delivered him a surprisingly easy victory over GOP nominee Mitt Romney in the general election.

“If there's a winner tonight, it's the Senator from Florida, Marco Rubio,” Will said on Nov. 4, 2012. “All eyes are now going to be turned to him as a man who might have a way to broaden the demographic appeal of this party.”

The young Hispanic politician’s appeal among conservative pundits has grown steadily since then.

Just last month, Rubio was buried in the polls, but Krauthammer declared him the most likely to win the GOP nomination. Since his announcement last week, he’s shot to the top of the pack, though. 

Krauthammer has called Rubio “the most knowledgeable and fluent current contender” on foreign policy, and Hayes has labeled him “the best communicator in the Republican party and probably in American politics today.”

Earlier this month, Kristol seemed giddy over the prospect that Republicans had the opportunity to buck history and nominate a fresh new face for a party that he said typically nominates “the presumptive heir.”

“This year, Democrats are falling in line, really to an extraordinary degree, I think, behind Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonTrump criticizes Justice for restoring McCabe's benefits Biden sends 'best wishes' to Clinton following hospitalization The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Altria - Jan. 6 panel flexes its muscle MORE who lost eight years ago,” he said. “And it's Republicans who seem to have an appetite for someone new and different. So, we're ready for Marco.”

Scott Walker

The pundits also look favorably on the Wisconsin governor’s likely candidacy. 

Krauthammer, Will and Hayes have all said Walker is either tied with Rubio or just slightly behind him as the candidate with the best odds of becoming the party’s standard-bearer.

In a February interview on “The Laura Ingraham Show,” Will gushed over Walker, calling him a “pure Reagan-ite” who showed guts in his recall fight and who will reap the rewards from the donor community because of it.

Krauthammer has said Walker has “the attributes you’d want for this kind of race,” arguing in a February appearance on Fox News that he can appeal to both the Tea Party and establishment wings of the party. 

Still, the pundits seem wary of Walker’s early foray into the field, citing some early missteps as evidence he may not be ready for the rigors of a presidential campaign.  

Walker has been criticized for changing positions on ethanol subsidies and immigration, for firing a staffer who was critical of the Iowa caucuses, for comparing Wisconsin union demonstrators to the Islamic State and for flubbing questions on evolution and President Obama’s patriotism. 

Goldberg wrote a column called, “Is Walker ready for prime time?,” in which he stated that the notion the Wisconsin governor is in over his head is “rapidly becoming conventional wisdom.”

Kristol compared Walker’s early blunders to “spring training…when a player is learning a new position.” 

Krauthammer said the missteps could be overcome, calling them, “Rookie mistakes, easily forgotten — if he learns from them."


Jeb Bush 

The former Florida governor is falling flat with conservative pundits.  

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They generally agree his intentions are good, but that he’s the wrong person to represent the party in 2016 and maybe the worst candidate to take on Hillary Clinton in the general election. 

“There’s no way there will be a Bush-Clinton race in 2016,” Kristol said in 2014.

“He’s the only Republican candidate who would make the Clinton name an asset for Hillary, not a liability,” Goldberg wrote in a column called “Jeb Bush is not the GOP’s ideal ‘change’ candidate.”

Hayes predicted that Bush’s early fundraising success wouldn’t be enough to push him across the finish line, saying on Fox News that the “grassroots conservatives will have a lot to say about this before this is over.”

And Krauthammer has openly bashed Bush for the now infamous remark that some immigrants come to the country illegally “as an act of love,” calling the comment “bizarre.”

Will seems the most open to Bush, calling him “the most conservative governor of a large state since Ronald Reagan” and defending Bush’s stance on immigration.

But for Will, Common Core is a bridge too far. 

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“Unless stopped now, the federal government will not stop short of finding in Common Core a pretext for becoming a national school board,” he wrote. “If Bush does not see the pertinence of this…he should not be put in charge of the executive branch.”

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Unfortunately for the libertarian-leaning Kentucky Senator, major conservative pundits hew closely to the hawkish wing of the party. 

Krauthammer has said Paul is “closest to Obama on his view of foreign policy,” and Hayes has written an op-ed on Paul’s foreign policy called “Rand Just Doesn’t Understand.”

“I think Rand Paul is totally overrated as a 2016 possibility,” said Kristol, who is one of the party’s most influential defense hawks. “The media loves him because he takes a couple of liberal views, publicizes them in an incoherent way. I predict Rand Paul will get fewer votes than his father [former Texas Rep. Ron Paul] got in 2012.” 

Even those who aren’t outright hostile to Paul over his foreign policy say his national security stances will cost him politically. Goldberg has sought to parse Paul’s views, saying there’s a difference between being an “isolationist,” which he argues Paul is not, and a “non-interventionist,” which he said is a better description of the Kentucky senator.

“The problem is that the political ground has just caved in beneath him,” Goldberg said. 

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Other pundits have expressed admiration of Paul for his willingness to speak bluntly or take difficult positions on a range of issues that many politicians shun, like criminal sentencing reform and drug laws.

However, others are skeptical there’s political payoff.  

“He’s trying to base his campaign on groups that don’t often vote Republican or vote at all; particularly youth,” wrote Will. 

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The Texas senator’s problems among pundits are similar to Paul. Still, they say to watch out for Cruz, arguing that the Tea Party favorite could surprise a lot of people with support from grassroots conservatives.

“Ted Cruz has one great advantage: He's very much underestimated, his chances considerably underrated,” Kristol tweeted. 

Similarly, Hayes has said Cruz is “underestimated by mainstream journalists and the mainstream Republican establishment and the very reasons that they are skeptical of his ability to do well are the reasons that he will do well or will be a formidable candidate in the Republican primary.”

But they say Cruz’s penchant for mayhem in the Senate and thin legislative record calls into question why he’s even running. 

Krauthammer speaks highly of Rubio, another first-term senator, but bashes Cruz — who has been in the Senate just four years — as inexperienced. 

“Cruz talks, but you have to ‘walk the walk’ rather than just talk the talk,” Krauthammer said. “You have to have done something. But that’s not his record in the Senate.”

Goldberg says that Cruz has a “palpable disdain for the consensus-building and glad-handing that these processes require,” while Will has disputed Cruz’s claim that there is a silent majority of evangelicals who have been on the sidelines awaiting a true conservative candidate.

“There is no need to nominate Cruz in order to make the GOP conservative,” he wrote