The Republican nominating race is a mess: a strong field, but with 10 declared candidates and a half-dozen more to come, we need a bouncer to keep order. I’ve given myself the job. Rope lines separate the four categories.
1. Jeb Bush. Solid, no sizzle. Sizzle may be in less demand than eight years ago, but his inability to separate from the pack, his recent campaign shakeup and his four-day stumble over Megyn Kelly’s “knowing what we know now” Iraq question have given even his supporters pause. Nonetheless, a bulging war chest, a fine gubernatorial record and a wide knowledge of domestic issues guarantee top-tier staying power.
2. Scott Walker. Maintains a significant lead in Iowa and it’s more than just a Wisconsinite’s favorite-son advantage. He’s got a solid governing record, has raised respectable money and has gone almost errorless for more than a month. One caveat: His major wobble on immigration threatens his straight-shooter persona.
3. Marco Rubio. Good launch, steady follow-up. With his fluency in foreign affairs, has benefited the most from President Obama’s imploding foreign policy. Polls well, but with seven or so within the margin of error, the important question is less “Who do you support?” than “Who could you support?” (measuring general acceptability). Rubio leads all with 74%. The New York Times’ comical attempts to nail him on driving (four citations in 18 years — “Arrest that man!”) and financial profligacy (a small family fishing boat characterized as a “luxury speedboat”) only confirm how much the Democrats fear his prospects.
Polls well, but can’t win
4. Rand Paul. Fought a principled, if hyperbolic, fight on metadata collection and privacy rights, but his ambivalent national-security posture alienates many in the GOP base. Consistently ranks among the leaders in the polls and is the most successful libertarian ever, but libertarianism is still far from becoming a governing or majority persuasion. High floor, low ceiling.
5. Ben Carson. Ditto. Broadly popular, but major rookie problems. His national finance chairman, deputy campaign manager and general counsel have all resigned within the past month. And while Obama showed that rookies can win, we haven’t elected a nonpolitician since 1952 — and that guy won World War II.
Second tier, with a chance to jump
6. Ted Cruz. Candidate on the cusp. Has the best chance to join the leaders. Only 16% “would never vote for.” His claimed $40 million raised (campaign plus super PACs) suggests a serious presence throughout the early contests at least.
7. John Kasich. My personal longshot wild card. Jack Kemp on steroids, a bleeding-heart conservative, articulate and voluble, but somewhat less disciplined than Kemp. Which can be a problem. It’s entertaining when he says, “I’m not going to have Bush money; Wells Fargo doesn’t have Bush money,” but not when implying that if your policies don’t match his on the Kasich compassion index, you have no heart.
8. Carly Fiorina. Has proved strong and steady on the campaign trail. The question is: Can you reach enough of Iowa and New Hampshire with just a car and a clipboard? To jump, she needs to get into the debates. But to get into the debates, she needs to jump (to the top 10 in the polls). Catch-22.
Second tier, in need of a miracle.
9. Rick Perry. Energetic launch. Spoke well, looked good. He’s learned that you don’t run for president right after back surgery and that you need an answer to “Why are you running?” His 2011 statement that his wife said to him, “Get out of your comfort zone” (as governor) was the worst since Teddy Kennedy had none at all in 1979. After four years of studying and prepping, Perry looks ready. Achilles’ heel: After his 2011 “oops” moment, he is on 24-hour gaffe watch.
10. Chris Christie. Damaged by Bridgegate, boxed out (ideologically) by Bush. Shows guts in openly advocating entitlement reform. It’s a gamble because that’s what voters say they want, but rarely vote for.
11. Mike Huckabee. A dead-set-against-entitlement-reform populist. Major social conservative appeal, but given the leftward ratcheting of the nation’s cultural center, it may be less of an asset, even in the GOP primaries, than in 2008.
I’ve done no justice to Lindsey Graham, Bobby Jindal and Rick Santorum, all eminently likable and highly qualified, but yet to make their move. If they do, The Racing Form will be there.
Charles Krauthammer is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.