The Republican professional political class increasingly views Gov. Chris Christie, who is on the verge of a sweeping reelection victory on Tuesday in the Democratic-friendly state of New Jersey, as its best — and maybe only — hope to win back the White House in 2016.
Here’s how one plugged-in Republican consultant responded by e-mail when asked how we should rank the current 2016 field: “Christie is in the [one] slot now and forevermore — he’s about to get huge margins in his historic reelection in a blue state — he’s the successful model for our party (from a political perspective) and his governing success is exactly what our country needs from a fiscal perspective. He can compete in about 40 of 50 states. Who else can do that and run as a conservative? No one.”
Christie is increasingly seen as the one candidate who might be able to bridge the divide between the establishment and the tea party that is in the process of ripping the party apart. In that way, Republicans are hoping that Christie can do for their side what Bill Clinton did in the early 1990s for a Democratic Party that was similarly divided — heal what looks to be an unhealable wound through force of personality and a demonstrated record of success as a governor.
Below we rank the 10 candidates most likely to wind up as the Republican presidential nominee in three years’ time. Enjoy!
10. Mike Pence: Looking for a dark horse? Try the Indiana governor. He’s a gifted communicator, liked by social and fiscal conservatives and not part of the Washington establishment.
9. Paul Ryan: There appears to be a significant dialing back of Ryan’s interest in a presidential run from even a few months ago. And, as several Republicans noted to us, the Wisconsin congressman’s really not doing much to build the beginnings of a presidential bid.
8. John Kasich: The Ohio governor needs to win reelection before he or his people will seriously entertain the possibility of another run for president. But let’s say Kasich wins. He’s a two-term governor of a Midwestern swing state who spent time in Washington — a long time ago — in Congress as the head of the House Budget Committee. That’s not a bad starting place.
7. Bobby Jindal: Several people we talked to suggested that we drop the Louisiana governor below Kasich in our rankings. But Jindal has the next year to continue to organize a presidential bid, while Kasich needs to keep both eyes on his reelection. That’s enough for us to give Jindal a slight edge. Jindal is quite clearly trying to position himself as the “ideas guy” in the field, also known as the Newton Leroy Gingrich Memorial Slot.
6. Marco Rubio: The problem for the senator from Florida is that his work to pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill through the Senate has damaged him within the party base — and, because the legislation remains mired in the House, he has nothing to show for it. Sign of the times? A poll by WMUR in New Hampshire showed Rubio in sixth place in the state’s primary field, tied with Rick Santorum. Oomph.
5. Jeb Bush: The holding pattern continues. If he runs, Bush may replace Christie as the Clinton figure in the field. But no one knows what he is going to do — and he isn’t talking much about it.
4. Scott Walker: The Wisconsin governor is in a similar position to Kasich. He has a very strong case to make for 2016 if he can get through his 2014 reelection race. Walker has proved himself — in his 2010 election and his 2011 recall election — to be a very able politician, so we have our doubts about Democratic claims that he may be vulnerable next November.
3. Ted Cruz: If the Iowa caucuses were held today, the senator from Texas would win. But they won’t be held today. Therein lies the fundamental question at the heart of Cruz’s increasingly likely candidacy: Can he sustain the energy and passion that the tea party base of the GOP has for him over the next two-plus years?
2. Rand Paul: Cruz’s ascension as the face of the tea party movement may actually make it more likely that the senator from Kentucky winds up as the nominee. If Cruz is seen as the most ideological of the top tier of candidates, Paul can cast himself as the most electable hybrid conservative — someone whom conservatives can feel good about and who can expand the GOP’s shrinking electoral map.
1. Chris Christie: No one has had a better 2013. The only question for Christie is whether the power center of the party has moved so far toward the tea party that — with his focus on pragmatism over principle and winning over all else — he simply cannot be its choice.