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GOP governors lead vanguard of 2016 presidential hopefuls

Republican leaders seek to translate success in state capitals into White House bids

December 16, 2014 2:00AM ET

The Republican field of presidential candidates grows like an armada setting sail in two divisions: veteran GOP governors in the vanguard, youthful legislators following close behind. In fact, just as there are too many candidates to crowd them on one stage for the debates, there are too many for a single column. Let us first consider the governors and then turn to the rest of the field in my next piece.

The vanguard is led by the well-known former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, 61. Bush’s recent appearance at the Wall Street Journal CEO Conference alerted pundits that, in the words of Wall Street Journal editorial page editor Paul Gigot, Bush is “inching toward” the campaign. “There’s a chance he won’t,” Gigot added, leaving the impression he thinks that Bush is a first-rate candidate, admired by the donor class as well as the potent WSJ editorial page.

The advantages for Bush are profound — an unequaled political dynasty to which he contributed eight years (1999 to 2007), as the leader of a sophisticated, multicultural state whose 29 votes are critical for the Electoral College. The negatives to primary voters include Bush’s advocacy for comprehensive immigration reform in the face of President Barack Obama’s controversial executive actions and his support of the controversial Common Core education reform. Gigot commented that Jeb Bush “looked a little rusty” as he defended his policies to the WSJ gathering. As Bush looks to form a fresh team in New Hampshire, GOP professionals are preparing for the tumult of debate on whether  the Bush family is conservative enough to lead the party into the 2020s.

Many governors enjoy a clearer path to the nomination than does Bush, who is aware of the doubts in the party about his conservative credentials. Bush is also aware of the negative image of a Bush family dynasty. Bush cagily describes the primaries as an “obstacle” — like something to be endured. The same doubts about conservative bona fides also plague former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, 67, who does not look to be a contender again but who does delight in the wise-man role for the campaign trail.

Texas’s thrice-elected Gov. Rick Perry, 64, is unchallenged as a social and fiscal conservative from the growth engine of the Texas energy boom. The burden for Perry is to dispel the impression from the 2011 presidential debates that he is not smooth or quick on his feet. Perry is already working to demonstrate studiousness by hosting dinners with domestic-policy scholars such as Avik Roy of the Manhattan Institute and Lanhee Chen of the Hoover Institution.

New Jersey’s twice-elected Gov. Chris Christie, 52, was a darling of the Republican cognoscenti in 2011 for his charisma and conservative credibility in his battles with the deeply blue Tri-State political class. Tireless attacks on Christie by MSNBC’s progressive talking heads, along with detailed commentary by The New York Times — all revolving around the “Bridge-gate” scandal, over Christie’s alleged creation of a retributive traffic-jam against Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich for not endorsing his 2013 gubernatorial candidacy — have so far had a negligible effect. Meanwhile, GOP veterans indicate that Christie has been recruiting donors and political operators in preparation for a campaign launch by spring 2015.

GOP governors take the argument about the nation’s future out of Washington and into the state capitals where the Republicans have enjoyed great success since Obama was first elected.

The Midwest governors are an oak-planked wall of fiscal conservatism. A strong favorite is Wisconsin’s twice-elected Gov. Scott Walker, 47, who has cut state spending while challenging Democratic strength in the public-sector unions. His prominent allies include fellow Wisconsinite and House Ways and Means Chairman Paul Ryan, a possible presidential candidate himself, and Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus. Walker delights in questions about the presidency and responds with effective discipline, “I care deeply about not only my state but my country. We’ll see what the future holds.”

Ohio’s twice-elected Gov. John Kasich, 62, was long a popular Dayton-area legislator from his time in leadership in Congress during Bill Clinton’s administration. Kasich enjoys national popularity as a former TV host on Fox News. No longer dismissing presidential ambitions, he has turned to welcoming speculation and offering patriotic remarks on ABC’s “This Week,” saying, “In our country today, there’s too much division, too much polarization — black-white, rich-poor, Democrat-Republican. America does best when we’re united.”

Indiana’s first-term Gov. Mike Pence, 55, was a successful talk-show host before he became a sturdy voice in the GOP House to help the Tea Party victories of 2010. Now in his first term in Indianapolis, Pence teases his admirers by saying he will make a decision on the White House after the close of the legislative term in April 2015. At the same time, Pence is establishing foreign policy credentials with his biblical rebuke of Barack Obama’s hesitant war on the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant: “If the trumpet does not sound a clear call, who will get ready for battle?”

The Midwest offers other gritty governors who, while likely not presidential contenders, add weight to the presumption that the general election will be won or lost in the blue and purple states of the region: Michigan’s twice-elected Gov. Rick Snyder, 56; Iowa’s six-time-elected Gov. Terry Branstad, 68; and the fresh miracle of Illinois’ Gov.-elect Bruce Rauner, 57.

Finally, Louisiana’s twice-elected Gov. Bobby Jindal, 43; Nevada’s twice-elected Gov. Brian Sandoval, 51; New Mexico’s twice-elected Gov. Susanna Martinez, 55; South Carolina’s twice-elected Gov. Nikki Haley, 42, all represent smaller Electoral College states and are unlikely to run in a crowded year. However, each offers fresh diversity that is missing in the history of the party’s presidential booms and would be a collective boon as surrogates on the campaign trail if they do not seek the debate stage.

The GOP governors already in the race take the argument about the nation’s future out of Washington, where it has withered the last six years of bickering, and into the state capitals where the Republicans have enjoyed great success since Obama was first elected.

In my next column, I will examine the rest of the potential field: Sens. Rand Paul, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio; Rep. Paul Ryan; and former Hewlett-Packard CEO and onetime Senate candidate Carly Fiorina of California; Dr. Ben Carson; and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee.

John Batchelor is a novelist and host of a national radio news show based in New York City.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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