2016 field shows di­vided GOP

With so many now run­ning in so many di­rec­tions, it’s hard to pick a clear leader.

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Mark Z. Barabak

Run­ning for pres­i­dent is not quite what it used to be.

Can­di­dates once had to rely on the sup­port of party lead­ers, who as­sessed their electabil­ity; on a broad fundrais­ing base to sus­tain them un­til vic­tory brought in fresh cash; and on a hand­ful of na­tional news out­lets to spread the word of their can­di­dacy. No more. Ma­jor changes in the po­lit­i­cal sys­tem — es­pe­cially cam­paign fi­nance laws that al­low rich peo­ple to write un­lim­ited checks to cer­tain po­lit­i­cal ac­tion com­mit­tees — have dras­ti­cally low­ered the bar­ri­ers to en­try, as has the pro­lif­er­a­tion of so­cial media.

“If you’ve got a Twit­ter ac­count, a Face­book page and a mil­lion­aire to fund your ‘su­per PAC,’ why not?” said Jim Dyke, a vet­eran Repub­li­can strate­gist work­ing for can­di­date Jeb Bush in South Carolina.

The re­sult is more than a dozen de­clared Repub­li­can can­di­dates — with oth­ers soon to fol­low — giv­ing the party its largest pick of pres­i­den­tial con­tenders in mem­ory and a ros­ter of un­com­mon depth and ex­pe­ri­ence.

What the party lacks is a clear leader in the 2016 field — or any­one, for that mat­ter, who can plau­si­bly claim a mean­ing­ful ad­van­tage — pro­duc­ing what is ar­guably the most wide-open Repub­li­can race in more than 50 years.

“You have peo­ple who lead in polls,” said Craig Robin­son, a GOP an­a­lyst in Iowa, the state due to cast the first pres­i­den­tial votes in about seven months, “but no front-run­ner.”

In­deed, an ag­gre­gate of sur­veys taken na­tion­ally as well as in Iowa and New Hamp­shire, the sec­ond state to vote, shows no can­di­date gain­ing the sup­port of even a quar­ter of Repub­li­can vot­ers in­ter­viewed.

With the field likely to in­clude at least four sit­ting gover­nors, plus the ex-gover­nors of three big states — Florida, New York and Texas — and four United States sen­a­tors, the party hardly lacks for skilled and po­lit­i­cally proven can­di­dates.

The faith­ful will in­evitably rally around the even­tual Repub­li­can nom­i­nee, unit­ing be­hind the shared goal of de­feat­ing the Democrats in

Novem­ber 2016 and win­ning back the White House af­ter an eight-year ab­sence.

But un­til then, the su­per­sized White House field points not just to the ease of en­try but to the myr­iad fault lines within the party: be­tween its es­tab­lish­ment and in­sur­gent wings, be­tween so­cial and eco­nomic con­ser­va­tives, be­tween its grow­ing po­lit­i­cal base in the con­ser­va­tive South and shrink­ing toe­hold in the more mod­er­ate North­east.

“We have po­lar­iza­tion in the Repub­li­can Party,” said Stu­art Spencer, a GOP strate­gist with more than half a cen­tury of cam­paign ex­pe­ri­ence. “Just as we do in the na­tion.”

It is not un­usual for a party out of power to look in­ward and de­bate what, if any, changes are needed to find its way back to suc­cess. (Repub­li­cans have lost the pop­u­lar vote in five of the last six pres­i­den­tial con­tests and haven’t won a siz­able elec­toral col­lege ma­jor­ity since 1988.)

In 1992, af­ter a string of Demo­cratic losses, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clin­ton won the White House run­ning as “a new kind of Demo­crat” who was less be­holden to the party’s long-stand­ing lib­eral or­tho­doxy. He de­clined to spare a death row in­mate from ex­e­cu­tion, hop­ing to show his tough­ness on crime, and vowed to dras­ti­cally over­haul the fed­eral wel­fare sys­tem, which he did in his sec­ond term as pres­i­dent.

No GOP can­di­dates have gone as far as Clin­ton in tak­ing on their own party. But sev­eral have nudged fel­low Repub­li­cans in dif­fer­ent ways: Bush, a for­mer Florida gover­nor, by urg­ing the party to soften its tone on immigration; Ken­tucky Sen. Rand Paul by ad­vo­cat­ing a less as­sertive mil­i­tary pol­icy; Ohio Gov. John Ka­sich by em­brac­ing the ex­pan­sion of Medi­care un­der the Af­ford­able Care Act, which is loathed by many Repub­li­cans.

While those three and oth­ers seek to broaden the party and its ap­peal, some ri­vals, in­clud­ing Wis­con­sin Gov. Scott Walker and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, have sug­gested Repub­li­cans hold true to their long-stand­ing po­si­tions and do a bet­ter job of turn­ing out sup­port­ers who, they sug­gest, have been dispir­ited by too-quick-to­com­pro­mise nom­i­nees like John McCain and Mitt Rom­ney.

“What Jeb Bush is say­ing is that we need to hide our con­ser­va­tive ideals,” Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jin­dal said Wed­nes­day in launch­ing his pres­i­den­tial bid. “But the truth is, if we go down that road again, we will lose again.”

Bush, with his uni­ver­sal name recog­ni­tion and ready-made na­tional net­work of po­lit­i­cal and fi­nan­cial sup­port­ers, was once con­sid­ered a strong fa­vorite for the nom­i­na­tion. But his less-than-stel­lar per­for­mance as a can­di­date and re­sis­tance among Repub­li­cans to­ward the no­tion of another Bush in the White House — fol­low­ing his fa­ther and older brother — have pushed him back among the rest of the pack.

That, in turn, has en­cour­aged oth­ers to jump into the Repub­li­can race, among them Ka­sich, who is ex­pected to for­mally de­clare his can­di­dacy by the end of sum­mer.

“I thought Jeb was just go­ing to suck all the air out of

the room,” Ohio’s gover­nor told a group of New Hamp­shire busi­ness lead­ers this month. “And it just hasn’t hap­pened.”

The last pres­i­den­tial race is in­struc­tive.

For­mer Penn­syl­va­nia Sen. Rick San­to­rum had lost his pre­vi­ous cam­paign, a 2006 Se­nate re­elec­tion bid, by a hu­mil­i­at­ing 18 points. He spent much of the early 2012 con­test as a near-as­terisk in polls. Still, San­to­rum nearly snatched the nom­i­na­tion away from the fron­trun­ning Rom­ney, thanks in good part to a lone fi­nan­cial bene­fac­tor who sus­tained San­to­rum’s cam­paign long af­ter it once would have ended.

Given that ex­pe­ri­ence, there is ev­ery in­cen­tive for oth­ers, in­clud­ing sev­eral dis­tinct long-shots, to hope they, too, can catch po­lit­i­cal light­ning in 2016. (San­to­rum is among them, mak­ing his sec­ond try for the White House.)

History is cer­tainly on the Repub­li­cans’ side: It is rare for a party to win the White House three times in a row, and with Pres­i­dent Obama step­ping down, an open seat of­fers added en­tice­ment.

“If you’re in­ter­ested in run­ning for pres­i­dent,” said Steve Duprey, a long­time New Hamp­shire GOP ac­tivist, “this is the time to do it.”

All but one of those seek­ing the Repub­li­can nom­i­na­tion will, of course, end up los­ing. But that may not be so bad, ei­ther: Save for the most off-putting can­di­dates, the re­wards may in­clude higher speak­ing fees, a shot at their own ca­ble TV show and maybe a slight edge should they run again four years from now.

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