Your first look at the 2016 GOP field

Three years ago this week, Mitt Romney officially clinched the GOP’s 2012 presidential nomination. One year from now, even with a deeper field of candidates, we ought to have a pretty good idea who will be the Republicans’ 2016 standard bearer. Here’s an early breakdown of the putative field.

The top tier: The candidates who are most likely to win the nomination.

  • Jeb Bush: He governed conservatively in two terms as Florida’s governor but irks the base with his stances on Common Core, immigration.
  • Rand Paul: The caucuses in Iowa and Nevada, which reward the campaign organization his father excelled at, and the primary in New Hampshire, whose voters often back mavericks, could hand him three early wins. If so, watch out.
  • Marco Rubio: He offers a blend of youthfulness and (mostly) traditional policy positions, allowing him to straddle the establishment/tea party line fairly well.
  • Scott Walker: He’s won three elections (including a recall) to earn two terms as governor of Wisconsin, the kind of blue Midwestern state that could turn red with the right candidate.

Do not underestimate: These candidates don’t necessarily rank in the second tier today, but they have the upside.

  • Chris Christie: Did he miss his chance in 2012? Maybe, but he’s gotten good reviews for his policy speeches so far, including at the Georgia GOP convention in Athens, as he sells a package of candor, willingness to make hard choices, and ability to defeat and then work with Democrats.
  • Ted Cruz: Written off by many as an extreme political stuntman, he’s too smart not to find ways to broaden his appeal. Probably the most dynamic speaker of the lot, he should shine in the debates.
  • Carly Fiorina: She won’t win. But her sharp attacks on Hillary Clinton could land her a VP nomination.
  • John Kasich: He’ll try to overcome skepticism about his state’s expansion of Medicaid with his record as a fiscal hawk in Congress.

Do not overestimate: These candidates have probably already peaked.

  • Benjamin Carson: Like Fiorina, he’s never been elected. Unlike her, he’s never even run for office. And unlike the four presidents to be elected with no prior political experience (Washington, Taylor, Grant, Eisenhower), he’s not a war hero.
  • Mike Huckabee: He has name ID from a 2008 run and a show on Fox News. But he’s likely to split his target audience — blue-collar social conservatives — with Rick Santorum (below).
  • Rick Perry: If he was going to be elected president, it was going to be in 2012. Oops.
  • Rick Santorum: He was the last not-Romney standing four years ago, in a race where GOP voters tried not to nominate Romney. He still lost. It won’t get better.

Bottom tier: These candidates won’t experience anything resembling a “peak.”

  • Lindsey Graham: He’s running third in his home state of South Carolina. He’s running as the defense hawk in a field that has plenty of those. He’s running … why?
  • Bobby Jindal: He’s a brilliant guy. But he can’t rev up a crowd and isn’t terribly popular at home. This year’s Tim Pawlenty, except this year’s field is tougher.
  • George Pataki: If Rudy Giuliani couldn’t win in 2008, Pataki ain’t winning in 2016.
  • Donald Trump: Ha!