Larry Sabato writes:

WOODBURY, NEW YORK - FEBRUARY 24: Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush speaks during a Long Island Association luncheon with LIA President and CEO Kevin S. Law at the Crest Hollow Country Club on February 24, 2014 in Woodbury, New York. Bush is widely seen as a possible presidential contender in 2016. (Photo by Andy Jacobsohn/Getty Images) Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush during a Long Island Association luncheon on Feb. 24. (Andy Jacobsohn/Getty Images)

In our first ranking of the very large and very unsettled 2016 Republican presidential field back in April of last year, we decided to not even include the name of one of the brightest stars in the GOP universe: Jeb Bush. We just didn’t think, at the time, that the former Florida governor and brother and son of presidents was all that interested in running.

But during 2013 and into this new year, we’ve gotten the sense, like many others, that things might be changing. So much so that we now consider Bush the leader of the field if he decides to run.

Sabato reasons that because of the bridge scandal, Gov. Chris Christie’s

“problems have only elevated Bush by comparison, and the two men would occupy similar space in a hypothetical primary contest: The same voters and states that backed the successful nominations of John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012 — i.e. the ones with smaller concentrations of ‘very conservative’ and white evangelical voters like New Hampshire, Florida and many Midwestern states — would probably be inclined to back one of these two or someone like them.”

He also reasons that despite the right-wing hoopla, “it’s going to be hard for someone who lacks widespread establishment support — like Sens. Rand Paul (R-KY) or Ted Cruz (R-TX) — to win the nomination.”

I agree with the latter, but is his assessment of Christie and Bush correct?

Well, for starters we still don’t know whether Bush will run, and it is hard to be a front-runner, keep supporters engaged, develop an agenda and try to clear the field without a committed candidate. That may happen, but it hasn’t yet. It is safe to say, however, that Jeb Bush’s supporters are more encouraged and he may give greater consideration to running if there is not another clear, establishment front-runner.

As for Christie, his staff circulated a video yesterday of him engaging with a questioner about the bridge scandal at a town-hall meeting. He clarified, repeatedly, that he fired staff not just because they lied to him but because the conduct was “wrong and unacceptable conduct for anybody entrusted with authority inside a government.” Unfortunately, the longer he keeps talking about it the harder it will be to reassure donors, keep in the top tier and get back to the work of prepping for a presidential campaign. If he is going to re-establish himself in the race he’ll need voters’ first association with his name to be something other than “bridge.” He’s got time, but probably only until the mid-term election — when the race will likely begin in earnest — to accomplish that.

So, we’d say, Sabato may be right, but he’s premature. And so long as there is substantial doubt about Jeb running, there is room for another conservative, establishment candidate with a track record to step forward. Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Gov. John Kasich of Ohio are the obvious contenders for that spot, but don’t overlook Indiana Gov. Mike Pence. With the emergence of national security as a top issue and Hillary Clinton’s vulnerability on her record, a strong pro-defense conservative (as Pence was in Congress) will be in high demand. The race, in other words, has not yet begun to take shape.