With all due respect to the 17 Republicans who took part in this month's Cleveland debate, maybe it's time to start separating the wheat from the chaff.
Let's eliminate former New York Gov. George Pataki and former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore, both with nary a pulse in the polls. If you like, add four others candidates who shared the stage with Pataki and Gilmore: South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum. All struggle for money, attention or standing (in some cases, all three). The only survivor from that panel: Carly Fiorina, who has bounced post-Cleveland from back-of-the-pack to fifth in New Hampshire.
That leaves us with 11 Republicans from whom to decide.
But how to sort them
Let's put aside the three non-officeholder candidates Donald Trump, Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina each of whom has had a good summer, but faces questions as to whether their respective surges can last. Let's also put aside the polls and come at this from a different direction: which contenders are most likely to change the party's post-Reagan identity? Such are the stakes in 2016: not merely to regain the White House, but to ideologically reorient the party. George H.W. Bush didn't try to do this. George W. Bush did. However, "compassionate conservatism" never took root as the Bush 43 presidency was quickly engulfed in the war of terror.
So which five Republican candidates are the ones best suited to redefine the party in a way the two post-Reagan GOP presidencies did not? Here are my choices:
1) Jeb Bush. He's both the luckiest an unluckiest man in the field. His luck: thanks to media obsession with Donald Trump, it's not a pile-on-Jeb affair as might have been expected six months ago. His misfortune: soft poll numbers, which might explain why the pro-Bush Right to Rise PAC will soon launch a $10 million ad campaign.
How would a Bush 45 presidency alter the GOP? Obviously, there's the emphasis on Latino outreach, but don't overlook Bush's willingness to move a wee bit on items like climate change. As such, he's a continuation of what the liberal historian Sean Willientz calls "modern Republicanism" in the tradition of Thomas Dewey and the previous two Bushes, trying to soften the party's conservative edges.
2) Scott Walker. Wisconsin's governor likes to talk economics and budget. On the social conservative side, he can point to signing a bill outlawing non-emergency abortions or at beyond 20 weeks of pregnancy.
Where Walker breaks with the field: the ability, for the son of a small-town Baptist minister, to be "pastoral" much in the same way that Reagan was able to channel faith into a larger conservation about values and principles (remember, it worked for Mike Huckabee in Iowa in 2008).
3) John Kasich. Ohio's governor immodestly told The New York Times: "Hopefully, in the course of all this, I'll be able to change some of the thinking about what it means to be a conservative."
And what would that be? Well, it won't be small government. If anything (and this is ironic, considering there's a Bush in the race), Kasich would seem an updated version of 43's "compassionate" message as Kasich likes to put it,"people in the shadows". It may play in New Hampshire, where nearly half of voters in the 2012 GOP primary called themselves moderate or liberal. Let's see if Kasich can take it past that early stop to, say, Alabama.
4) Marco Rubio. The Florida senator would be all of 45 at the time of next year's national convention, should he secure his party's nomination. You have to go all the way back to 1856 and John C. Fremont at age-43, the first-ever GOP nominee to find a first-time nominee that young. Then again, Fremont had already lived a full life, what with crisscrossing the Rockies and bringing California into the union (go ahead and blame him).
Not that Rubio would bring a complete set of Gen-X sensibilities to the race (the media will note this ad nauseam), but he would be able to speak peer-to-peer to the non-AARP sector of the electorate on matters like child-rearing, college-savings and caring for aging parents something new for a GOP accustomed to 60- and 70-something nominees. Are we overrating youth? Going back to Bill Clinton in 1992, the younger candidate has carried the popular vote in each presidential election.
5) Ted Cruz. The Texas senator is a quiet third in the latest Fox News poll(one point ahead of Bush, two points behind Ben Carson), and of late doing something even quieter: mounting a clever but stealthy campaign across the Deep South (20 stops, 2,000 miles across "Cruz Country i.e., states participating in next March's "SEC Primary").
Cruz has raised the most hard money in this campaign; his may be the one candidacy hardest-set on realizing the Tea Party's dream of ending the culture of big government and over-spending. Funny how times change: a year ago, the narrative was a Tea Party fight between Cruz and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul. With the latter's campaign struggling, now it's whether Cruz can tap into Trump's support (saying nice things about The Donald being a good start).
There's my starting five. Your thought as to which, if any, goes the distance?
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• 05/21/15: 2016: Do Looks Matter?
• 05/15/15: John Bolton's Swan Song
Reprinted from Forbes.com