1. There really is no front-runner. Among RJC members, there are former Florida governor Jeb Bush people, Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) people, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker folks and what I have been told is a growing band of Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.) people. But many RJC members talk about their top picks — plural — and there seems to be general recognition that even if their favorite doesn’t win, several others would be more than fine. In Iowa, Republicans have barely begun the kicking-the-tire stage.
2. There is much more animosity in the talk show universe than among actual voters toward Jeb Bush. Among those to whom I spoke from the RJC who did not think he was the best matchup, there was nevertheless recognition he had a solid record as governor, was plenty conservative and would be ready to govern. Indeed, RJC members seemed downright giddy about a field with so many capable candidates.
3. Electability is high on the list of concerns. Many RJC attendees caution Republicans not to underestimate Hillary Clinton’s toughness and mega-fundraising.
4. Both in Iowa and Vegas, foreign policy is a top, if not the top, issue, and there is remarkable unity on Iran (entirely opposed to the negotiations, let alone the framework), rebuilding the military, supporting Israel and repairing alliances. (It’s gotten to the point where Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who rose to fame filibustering on the subject of droning terrorists at cafes, is now defending the president’s droning mission! His newfound hawkishness, however, has not earned him any support from the staunchly pro-Israel Republicans in Vegas.)
5. Pundits talk in terms of governors vs. senators, but politically engaged Republicans tend to think in terms of individual candidates — are they inspiring, tough, aggressive, knowledgeable and capable of turning the country around? It does not seem they have one model for presidential preparation.
6. In Vegas, House Speaker John Boehner got a hero’s welcome for inviting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to speak to Congress over the White House’s objections. They saw that as a critical act of defiance of the White House and maybe a turning point in the Iran debate nationally. They know they have to win over Democrats on the issue and seem genuinely concerned about building bridges on this issue.
7. The candidates who seem to be doing poorly are ones who ran before — Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee. One gets the feeling that the voters saw them before, didn’t bite and aren’t much interested now. They do want “new,” but for many voters, Jeb Bush the person, as opposed to the Bush family, is unfamiliar. There are so many better candidates ahead of those two, it’s not clear what the argument for their candidacy remains.
8. There is tremendous respect and even affection for Carly Fiorina, who Republicans can see is terrific on camera and in her set speeches and is taking shot after shot at Hillary Clinton. There are plenty of people willing to give her some support to keep her going as long as possible.
9. Republicans are certain the Democrats will stick with Hillary Clinton come hell or high water. Many recall the 1990s, when the Clintons continually outfoxed critics. Wounded or not, Hillary Clinton is the opponent, and that in turn is setting a bar high for the GOP pick. As vulnerable as she is on ethics and her record, few are taking her lightly.