Potential candidates for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016 include, from left, Jeb Bush; Rick Perry; Sen. Ted Cruz; Sen. Rand Paul; and Mike Huckabee. (The Associated Press)
Reporter

Boy, that escalated quickly.

Less than two months after the 2014 elections, the 2016 Republican presidential race is taking clear shape — with several major players moving quickly to carve out their space (and maybe keep others from carving it up) in the contest.

No one typifies that early movement better than former Florida governor Jeb Bush, who has formed a leadership PAC, said he is actively exploring a presidential bid and resigned all his roles on corporate and nonprofit boards.

That flurry of activity took Bush from “well, maybe he might run” to “he’s definitely running” in the minds of Republican activists, political professionals and potential rivals.

And he was far from the only one. Outgoing Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who flopped in his 2012 presidential bid, has made it clear for many months that he plans another run for the White House. Ditto his Lone Star State colleague Sen. Ted Cruz. Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.) has been aggressively organizing for his presidential bid almost since arriving in the Senate in 2011.

On Saturday, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee joined that growing group by announcing that he was ending his show on Fox News Channel to seriously consider running for president.

“As much as I have loved doing the show, I cannot bring myself to rule out another presidential run,” Huckabee said in a statement on his Web site Saturday night. “I say goodbye, but as we say in television, stay tuned. There’s more to come.”

All the sudden movement — particularly from Bush and Huckabee — has the potential to dramatically alter the face of the just-beginning race to be the next Republican presidential nominee.

Bush is, without question, the favorite son of the GOP establishment — a group that includes, most important, many of the major donors who helped propel his brother George, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) and Mitt Romney to the Republican nomination over the past decade and a half.

Although no one has said that Bush being in means they are out — Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), a Bush protege, has been most outspoken about that — there’s no debate that Bush takes up lots of space that others would like to occupy.

Rubio, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie are all affected — to varying degrees — by Bush’s aggressive move toward the race. And it’s hard not to see the decision by Sen. Rob Portman (Ohio) not to run — announced in late 2014 — as anything other than a reaction to the increasing likelihood that Bush is in.

(I still expect Christie and Jindal to run with Bush as a candidate. And maybe Walker and Rubio, too. But the race is a different one for them than it might be with Bush out.)

The effect of Huckabee’s active consideration of the contest is less obvious than Bush’s, but no less important. Although it has been more than six years since he last ran for president, Huckabee remains the preferred candidate of the same social conservatives who propelled him to a surprise win in the 2008 Iowa caucuses.

Huckabee’s appeal among social conservatives — particularly in Iowa — will mix up the plans of people such as Cruz, neurosurgeon Ben Carson and former senator Rick Santorum (Pa.), who won Iowa in 2012.

So, why all the early movement in the 2016 race?

At one level, it’s not all that unusual. Remember that then-Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack (D) got into the 2008 presidential race just two days after the 2006 election ended .

But Bush and Huckabee are not the long shots that Vilsack clearly was. (Vilsack was out of the race by February 2007, before most people knew he had gotten in.) Both are well-known figures who rank at or near the top of most national polling on the race.

Their decisions to move as aggressively as they have is probably the result of two major factors: fundraising and Hillary Clinton.

To raise north of $75 million, which looks like the floor of what it might require to win the Republican nomination, takes lots and lots of time. (Romney raised and spent $76.6 million to capture the nomination in 2012.) The sooner a candidate starts building a national cash-collection operation — not to mention infrastructures in early states — the better.

Then there is Clinton, who looms as the near-certain Democratic presidential nominee — a fundraising and polling juggernaut who is striking fear in the hearts of Republicans who fret about the prospect of spending 16 straight years without control of the White House.

Clinton’s lack of any serious primary competition should — emphasis on should — allow her to not only conserve cash but also position herself message-wise for the general election almost from the minute she becomes a candidate. (No, her running isn’t a done deal. But it’s damn close.)

The GOP knows that, and the party has acted to counter that edge — seeking to limit the number of presidential primary debates and strictly control the nominating calendar in hopes of producing a nominee sooner rather than later.

Some of the major Republican candidates are following that lead — trying to get the jump on their potential competitors and prove their readiness to take on (and take down) Clinton in the general election.

What remains to be seen is what the early actions by Bush and Huckabee — among others — mean for the race as it goes forward. Does Bush keep other establishment candidates out? Does Huckabee actually run, and, if so, what does that mean for Cruz and Santorum? How will the Republican electorate react to such a quick-starting race?

More questions than answers. But if the early pace of the 2016 field is any indicator, we will get answers sooner than you might think.