When Mitt Romney accepted the GOP nomination for president on Thursday night, Republicans greeted him with a standing ovation. But it's safe to say that there were dozens of politicians in the convention hall who were thinking: That could be me—in four years.
That's the type of thing, of course, that narcissistic politicians often say to themselves. But this time, it's true. If the Republican convention proved anything, it's that there will be an unusually strong cadre of Republicans vying for the 2016 nomination if Mitt Romney fails to win the White House in 2012. Increasingly, it seems the next GOP presidential primary will be a bloodbath—and the jockeying has already begun.
Chris Christie, Paul Ryan, and Scott Walker are already well positioned to run as reformists willing to make the tough choices to curb the excesses of the welfare state. Christie and Ryan’s commitment to this message was even strong enough to leave many wondering whether their message was consistent with Romney’s more modest case for competent economic management after years of disappointment. There’s no question that Christie’s attitude best embodies the spirit of the reformists, but Walker’s political skills are superb—perhaps the best of anyone on the list—and Ryan’s ascent to national prominence is a tremendous asset. Ryan and Walker are more than conservative enough to appeal to the most ideological wing of the Republican Party while stressing a reformist message with appeal to higher-income, establishment friendly Republicans, and their neighboring-state advantage might help their appeal in Iowa.
Another set of candidates are placed to seize the Tea Party mantle if they so choose, or at least appeal to the most ideologically conservative wing of the party. Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, and Nikki Haley can claim to adhere to the ideologically pure, rule-based form of movement conservatism that dominates Republican caucuses. But although the movement standard-bearer often struggles to craft a broad enough coalition to compete with the establishment candidate, all three enter with real assets that might broaden their appeal. Rand Paul’s name and father potentially bestow an army of loyal volunteers and donors, and there’s a chance Paul could retain the allegiance of libertarian Paul-ites while building the support of conservative Tea Partiers. And although Marco Rubio is deeply associated with the Tea Party, his excellent political skills, national profile, and perhaps his efforts on immigration have combined to mainstream his popularity well beyond the conservative-populist wing of the party. Just for good measure, Rubio's home state is also a traditional bulwark against populist candidates, since Florida effectively ensured McCain and Romney’s nominations.
On the flip-side are the revived Bush Republicans now strangely positioned to run as new Republicans—somewhat in the way that Clinton could paradoxically run as a “New Democrat” despite hailing from the party’s old heartland. Jeb Bush and Condoleezza Rice are already preaching a Fareed Zakaria-style conservatism emphasizing moderation on immigration, U.S. economic competitiveness, and outreach to the burgeoning minority groups essential to the GOP’s viability. While both will receive considerable attention from the media, Condoleezza Rice’s heterodox social views could leave her as relevant as Jon Huntsman (that is to say, entirely irrelevant). Jeb Bush, however, would likely find broader support. Oddly, both Rubio and Christie could also choose to advance “New Republican” appeals, starting with their moderate positions on immigration, although neither have stressed an independent-streak.
And then there are the talented but still undefined products of 2009 and 2010, like Susana Martinez, Bob McDonnell, Kelly Ayotte, who showcased impressive (or improving) political skills during the veepstakes but haven’t implicitly outlined the themes of an eventual presidential run. They are certainly not obligated to do so at this early stage, but unlike generic candidates running in an underwhelming year—like Romney this year, or John Kerry in 2004—they’ll require a central message to stay competitive with a talented field. Without a stronger brand, they risk joining John Thune or Bobby Jindal as appealing candidates without an overwhelming strength or enough ambition. Fortunately for all of them, all have time to mature as political figures.
In such a competitive field, it’s tough for any single candidate to rise as a favorite four years in advance, especially since it's impossible to predict whether the party faithful might be driven toward moderation or emboldened to strive for purity after years of Obama or Romney. But a few candidates, like Chris Christie, seem poorly positioned compared to their talents, record, and message. Ryan and Walker have an equally credible case as reformers, but stronger conservative credentials and Midwestern appeal. Similarly, Rand Paul or Nikki Haley will struggle to triumph over establishment-friendly candidates with sufficiently and authentically conservative positions. But four years in advance, talent probably matters more than the strength of their current message. And if the RNC demonstrated anything, it was that any of these candidates could possess the talent necessary to capitalize on the prevailing sentiments of 2016 or 2020, whatever they prove to be.