Super-sized GOP field of 21 tests presidential waters

Chad Livengood
Detroit News Lansing Bureau
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The potential Republican presidential primary field is an oversized gaggle of 21 governors, senators, and aspiring and former politicians who have expressed interest in being America's next commander-in-chief.

While big-name Republicans such as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker are viewed within the GOP as among the most viable opponents to the Democratic nominee, other lower-tier Republicans are keeping their names in the news — with about four months to go until the first televised Republican debate in Ohio.

Even Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder has gotten in on the act, teasing journalists by saying he hasn't ruled out a presidential campaign, even though he hasn't stepped foot this year into the crucial early 2016 caucus and primary states of Iowa and New Hampshire.

This is the largest field in recent history. In the 2012 election cycle, 11 Republicans tried their hand at presidential politics and competed in at least two primaries, which created lengthy primary ballots and crowded debate stages.

The early 2016 Republican field is so large because long-shot candidates stand to gain book contracts, paid speaking engagements or platforms for their next job in politics or public policy the longer they stay in the race — physically or, in Snyder's case, in headlines, said Matt Grossmann, associate professor of political science at Michigan State University.

"With those as the door prizes, it doesn't make any sense to exit the campaign early," Grossmann said.

By comparison, just four Democrats are publicly considering campaigns for their party's nomination: Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb and former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee, who announced a presidential exploratory committee Thursday.

Three big-name Republicans have already dropped out: Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the 2012 GOP nominee; his former running mate, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan; and Ohio Sen. Rob Portman.

Officially, only Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul have declared themselves full-blown Republican candidates for president. Mark Everson, a former IRS commissioner under President George W. Bush, also has launched a long-shot bid for the GOP nomination.

Cruz may have jumped into the race early to prove whether he can compete for coveted campaign cash, said Brian Calfano, associate professor of political science at Missouri State University.

"It's essential brand differentiation among candidates who really aren't that different," Calfano said. "When you're looking for donors, you're trying to make your brand and your product as different and worthy as possible."

But with the Iowa caucuses 10 months away — and the Michigan primary shortly after on March 8, 2016 — the official field is expected to grow quickly this spring as organized campaigns begin to take shape in the early primary states. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio is planning a "huge announcement" Monday on his 2016 plans.

"Really, the key is how many of them can survive until the Iowa caucuses," said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. "You can't just live off of the land anymore. You have to have money and staff to even survive."

Campaign committees supporting former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum's 2012 presidential bid spent nearly $31 million to win 11 primaries before the campaign sputtered out in April 2012 and Santorum conceded the nomination to Romney.

Money isn't everything

Bush is raising money for a political action committee and "actively" exploring a bid for the office held by his father and brother, while retired neurosurgeon and Detroit native Ben Carson and New York real estate mogul Donald Trump formed exploratory committees in March to begin raising money. Carson has said he will make a decision by early May.

Walker, who plans to speak at an Oakland County Republican Party dinner May 4 in Novi, has created a political organization to help boost his potential candidacy.

The March 31 first-quarter fundraising deadline for presidential and congressional campaigns could lead some to reconsider marching forward, though.

"Deciding whether or not to run for president is not easy," Carson said last week in a fundraising plea to supporters. "The positive response I've gotten around the country has been tremendous, but this would be a marathon, not a sprint."

Carson was in Michigan last week, delivering a paid speech at Alma College that was booked three years ago.

Ron Weiser, a national Republican fundraiser from Ann Arbor, is remaining neutral in the race "for the foreseeable future," but thinks Bush remains the odds-on favorite in the money game.

"But that's only one measure for how things are going," said Weiser, a former Michigan Republican Party chairman. "It's all so early, polling doesn't have much value and money isn't the only thing needed to win. It's helpful, but not everything."

Other potential candidates with high-profile names are continuing to travel the country, deliver speeches and draw media attention. Ohio Gov. John Kasich is speaking to the Detroit Economic Club on Monday.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie spoke to Macomb County Republicans March 27, saying "if you stand with me, I will stand with you." Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina of California will headline a May 12 dinner in Lansing sponsored by the Michigan Chamber of Commerce Foundation.

The 2012 presidential election cycle's crowded field of 11 featured "minor candidates" like former Godfather's Pizza executive Herman Cain and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who both got short-term boosts from a seemingly endless schedule of televised debates, Sabato said.

The crowded field, Sabato said, ultimately may have harmed Romney's chances of toppling Democratic President Barack Obama in the November 2012 general election.

But this time around, the Republican National Committee has imposed stricter guidelines for the debate schedule, sanctioning just nine debates from August through February and just one candidate showcasing per state (Michigan has so far been snubbed).

"There's not going to be as many opportunities for these minor candidates to hop on a rocket at a debate," Sabato said.

Changing perceptions

Republican political observers say early maneuvering by potential candidates means little until the field narrows and GOP voters get to see the presidential hopefuls in their home states or in televised debates beginning in August.

"It's wide open," said Steve Scheffler, president of the Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition, which is hosting at least eight of the Republican candidates April 25 for a forum in suburban Des Moines.

Iowa's first-in-the-nation caucuses are scheduled for Feb. 1 — and not a moment too soon. A slew of undeclared Republican candidates have been trekking to the Hawkeye State with more frequency in recent weeks to test the presidential waters.

South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, a centrist Republican successful with voters in one of the most conservative states, has long been viewed with suspicion by conservatives. But he reportedly charmed crowds in Iowa this winter as he assesses his viability for a White House run.

"Iowans' perception of him is so much different than what they have after they meet him," said Craig Robinson, editor-in-chief of the Iowa Republican blog. "I don't know if that means that people are going to go caucus for the guy, but he's really been changing people's perception of him as a senator and a potential presidential candidate."

Graham and other presidential long shots are trying to exploit perceived weaknesses in the campaigns of Bush and Walker among some factions of Iowa Republican voters, Robinson said.

Complicating the early campaigning in Iowa is that two former winners of the caucuses — Santorum and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee — are trying to re-establish themselves as viable alternatives to Bush, Walker, Rubio or Paul.

Huckabee won the 2008 Iowa caucuses before his last presidential campaign fizzled, and Santorum won the contest in 2012 before losing Michigan and other bigger states to Romney.

"This is a much different, more complicated field of candidates than we've seen," said Robinson, who ran the 2008 caucuses for the Iowa Republican Party. "The million dollar question is: Who's going to be left standing come next Feb. 2?"

What about Dems?

In contrast to the large Republican field, just four Democrats are pondering their party's nomination: Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, ex-Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, former Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia and ex-Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee.

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