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The big question for 2016: Will Ryan run?

Republican presidential primaries tend to be multi-candidate races in which the winner benefits from an electorate divided among his opponents. The key to assessing how it all will shake out is to zoom out and regard the race as a whole.

In 2012 Mitt Romney’s opponents (in addition to imploding on their own) split the anybody-but-Romney vote. In 2008 Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), once he found his footing in New Hampshire, saw the candidates to his right (Mike Huckabee, Romney) cannibalize each other’s support.

You can call this phenomenon the “establishment” vs. the “tea party” or the “insider” vs. “outsider.” In most races for the GOP nomination (at least since the advent of a real primary system), the party ultimately rejects less well-known and less-experienced ideologues. In 1976, even a former governor of California, Ronald Reagan, was too outsidery for the GOP. By 1980 the party had moved right and come to view him (correctly) as a viable candidate, not simply an ideological opponent of more moderate candidates.

Meanwhile, there is typically a disparity in the attention devoted to more ideological, extreme candidates and to the ones more likely to prevail. The wackier the candidate, the more he or she attracts the mainstream media. Gravitas often seems inversely proportional to the coverage a GOP candidate gets — at least until he or she racks up a few primary wins. And as in 2012 (Sarah Palin,  New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour), the media spend lots of time speculating early on about pols who ultimately decide not to run.

Perhaps then it is not surprising that the potential candidates for 2016 who have executive experience and/or have run before (Christie, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Wisconsin congressman and former VP candidate Paul Ryan, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker) aren’t generating the frenzied headlines provoked by Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Ted Cruz (R-Tex.).

Paul and Cruz are catnip for the press and seek the limelight, while those with the luxury of time to decide (with their financial network and name recognition giving them a large head start) can go about their day jobs. In fact, the batch of experienced candidates is far more likely to run, and one of them to win, than are the two freshmen gadflies.

If you are Christie or Ryan, you’d be happy for Perry, Paul and Cruz to all get in — thereby carving up the angry right’s votes.

The more interesting action takes place among the experienced candidates. The first question is where Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) falls. Is he the immigration reformer and internationalist on foreign policy who can compete with Christie and Ryan? Or is he the shut-down-the-government rabble-rouser who is trying to measure up to Paul and Cruz? One gets the feeling that he hasn’t decided and, getting antsy after the immigration fight, has tried to shift right. If it works, he might grab sufficient support from disparate elements of the party to win; the danger is that he winds up pleasing no one.

It is also the case that Rubio may not choose to run in 2016. He’s the youngest of the potential top-tier GOP candidates (he’s about a year and a half younger than Ryan), has the least experience and is the best-equipped to let his resume evolve slowly.

Christie seems almost certain to run, but his road to the nomination would undoubtedly be smoother if Ryan doesn’t (in 2012 Christie’s decision to stay out helped Romney seal up the party’s nod). Ryan will have to assess what calls to him: another presidential campaign, the House Ways and Means chairmanship or even the House speakership (eventually Speaker John Boehner will throw up his hands in disgust and retire). Much depends, I would argue, on whether Ryan feels Christie can be the “conservative reformer”; if so, Ryan may find no reason to run and no realistic opening.

As for Scott Walker, he’s arguably the guy no one would object to. (In 2012 that was former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, a much less skilled pol than Walker.) He has to run for reelection in Wisconsin in 2014 (his third gubernatorial race since 2010, counting the failed effort to recall him). Does he want to make his run for the White House now (he’s only 45 years old) or, like Rubio, perhaps bide his time or hope for a vice-presidential nod?

Ironically, it is more important to the eventual outcome whether Walker runs than whether Cruz or Paul does. And the most critical decision of all could well be Ryan’s,  namely whether he decides to run or concludes Christie is the most viable contender to elect a reform-minded GOP president.

Remember: The name of the game, regardless of the media coverage, is what happens among the experienced contenders. One of them, in all likelihood, will be the GOP nominee.