On Thursday morning, NBC's Matt Lauer asked former first lady Barbara Bush whether she wanted to see her son, Jeb, run for president in 2016. "He’s by far the best qualified man," she said. "But no, I really don’t.”
Welcome to the conundrum that is the former Florida governor when it comes to trying to handicap the 2016 presidential field!
No one doubts that if he ran, Jeb Bush would start the race as the GOP front-runner by dint of his record as governor, his policy chops and the power that his last name conveys in Republican politics. And yet, his last name is freighted with problems as well. Not only is his brother still viewed disapprovingly by a majority of the country but the idea of a third president from the same family might not sit all that well with voters. (That includes Barbara Bush, by the way; "We've had enough Bushes," she told Lauer.)
Then there is Jeb himself who seems to be wrestling with whether he wants to reenter the political arena. Bush and his allies note that he is, by nature, a policy guy who doesn't enjoy the back-and-forth nature of modern American politics. But, Bush has done enough over the past few months -- including refusing to rule out a run -- to suggest that he is, at the very least, entertaining the idea of running.
The race with Jeb is a very different one than the race without him. (We believe that if Bush runs, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio doesn't.) But, the contradictions and conflicting signals make it impossible to know just where he fits in (or doesn't).
With others making their intentions to run clear, we are leaving Bush in the middle of the pack in our latest ranking of the 10 Republicans most likely to wind up as the party's presidential nominee in 2016. That's the journalistic equivalent of throwing up our collective hands when it comes to figuring out where Jeb belongs -- and why.
As always, the number one ranked candidate is considered the most likely nominee as of today. Agree or (more likely) disagree with our picks? The comment section awaits.
To the Line!
10. Ohio Gov. John Kasich: The news keeps getting better for Kasich, whose approval rating has steadily recovered from its doldrums early in his term. A Quinnipiac University poll last week showed his approval at 52 percent, and he leads all comers by a clear margin for reelection as governor in 2014 (though he remains under 50 percent and is losing some GOP support). If Kasich, once a popular Republican House member and Fox News host who ran for president briefly in 2000, can keep it going and win reelection, it’s hard not to consider him a serious presidential candidate if he runs. (Previous ranking: 8)
9. Indiana Gov. Mike Pence: A conservative with a loyal following when he was in the House, Pence won the governorship last year in an increasingly Republican state. He hasn't ventured onto the national radar much lately -- something he'll need to do if he wants to make a White House bid. Pence remains very much a dark horse in the 2016 conversation; he's too popular among conservatives to overlook, but has to overcome some hurdles before he can run with the most elite contenders. (Previous ranking: 7)
8. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker: News that Walker is writing a book with Washington Post columnist and former top George W. Bush adviser Marc Thiessen should serve notice that he is ready for a larger national profile. And Walker was pretty candid about the possibility of a presidential campaign last month at the Conservative Political Action Conference. His recall election win remains the GOP highlight of 2012, and Republicans right now are looking for true conservatives and true winners. Walker is both. One issue: Walker and Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan are close personally. If Ryan runs, does Walker take a pass? (Previous ranking: N/A)
7. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz: There is considerable debate over whether the Canadian-born Cruz is even eligible to run, but if he is, then he must be regarded as a serious potential contender because of his hero-like status among the conservative grass roots. Since joining the Senate, Cruz has thrown his base heaps of red meat, crusading against President Obama's health-care law, voting against John Kerry for secretary of state, and even agitating more senior members in committee hearings as he flashes an unapologetic brand of conservatism. Question for Cruz: In a field that includes Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, is there enough oxygen left for him? (Previous ranking: N/A)
6. Jeb Bush: See above. (Previous ranking: 5)
5. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal: Jindal is going through his roughest patch as a governor (even considering his widely panned official Republican response to Obama's speech to a joint session of Congress in Februury 2009). In fact, a recent poll showed he is less popular in Louisiana than President Obama. Home-state politics aren’t the be-all, end-all of presidential politics, but it certainly doesn’t help that Jindal isn’t pleasing voters in a red state. (Previous ranking: 3)
4. Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan: The House Budget chairman and 2012 vice presidential nominee is one of the toughest potential candidates on this list to read. A policy wonk by nature, Ryan has said has no desire to become speaker of the House or assume another elected leadership position in the House. What about the presidency? Ryan says he enjoyed being part of the 2012 ticket, and hasn't shut the door on a 2016 White House bid of his own. But we could just as easily see him continuing to work on fiscal issues in the House or becoming budget director under a Republican president. This much we do know: If Ryan runs for president, the enthusiasm that exists for him in the conservative base would make him formidable. (Previous ranking: 4)
3. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul: Paul is in the race. He has been the most overt of any Republicans when it comes to expressing interesting in a candidacy, and he proved last month during his filibuster on drones that he should not be underestimated. Paul is often compared to his father and three-time presidential candidate Ron Paul. The comparison works but is incomplete. Rand Paul has all of the support of the libertarian wing of the GOP that his father enjoyed but also has significantly better political skills and a charisma that his father lacked. (Previous ranking: 6)
2. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie: Christie remains in the No. 2 spot because he’s the most popular Republican in the country. At the same time, he’s got some issues with the conservative base, which he needs to address if he wants to run for president. Assuming he continues to hold a big lead in his 2013 reelection race, it will be interesting to see how far right Christie tacks in the coming months. At the very least, though, you’ve got to give him this: He looked good in shades. (Previous ranking: 2)
1. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio: The next few months will be a telling indicator of Rubio's political and persuasion skills. He is, without question, the linchpin -- not to mention the public face -- of the Senate's attempt to pass comprehensive immigration reform. If Rubio can shepherd it to passage with a decent number of Republican votes (and with minimal conservative agita) he will emerge as an even clearer front-runner in 2016. (All of this assumes, of course, that Jeb doesn't run.) Failure for the bill might not help Rubio in a general election, but if he can paint himself as standing on principle against Obama then it might end up being a feather in his cap in a 2016 GOP primary. If you assume that the candidate with the most natural ability is usually the candidate who winds up winning, that's Rubio. (Previous ranking: 1)
Aaron Blake and Sean Sullivan contributed to this report