In the realm of Republican presidential politics, this has been a good year for Senators Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ted Cruz of Texas. It hasn't been as kind to former Florida Governor Jeb Bush or Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker.
Two years before the election looks a lot like the preseason in professional football. It doesn't count, but it shows potentials and vulnerabilities, an opportunity for early reading.
It's sobering to recall that less than a year ago the hottest Republican properties were New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Florida Senator Marco Rubio. Both then went into free fall: Christie was hit by a scandal at home, Rubio by his support for immigration reform. Their positions have stabilized, but these setbacks still weigh.
The three central criteria for a top-tier contender at this stage are a proven ability to put together a network of supporters, a robust fundraising capacity and the strong probability of running.
"The one guy you can say for sure that's going to be in it is Rand Paul," says Vin Weber, who was co-chairman of the Mitt Romney campaign and John McCain's earlier quest, and isn't in the Paul wing of the party.
Paul, a 51-year-old freshman senator, inherits his father's base -- Ron Paul ran for president several times -- with a better and more appealing outreach. He's brought his libertarian message to minorities -- last week, he criticized the police for the killing of a black teenager in Ferguson, Missouri -- and college students, and has made four trips to Iowa, site of the first caucuses.
He has sought to play down his isolationist views, insisting that he supports Israel as well as the recent U.S. airstrikes against jihadis in Iraq. Yet the party's neoconservative wing, foremost ex-Vice President Dick Cheney, are unyielding in their opposition to Paul.
Cruz, also a first-term senator, continues to touch all the politically erogenous zones of the right-wing base: anti-everything in Washington and related to President Barack Obama, as well as checking off all the social conservative boxes.
"There's a lot of Ted Cruz buzz out here; he has exposed the system," says Bob Vander Plaats, an ultraconservative activist in Iowa.
In contrast to Paul, Cruz, 43, takes a hawkish line on national security; he sounds like he's running. One impediment could be if former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee jumped in and they split the social conservative vote.
Another consideration has been the possibility of a run by Texas Governor Rick Perry. Last time, Perry flopped as a candidate, but he had made a surprising comeback: more polished, sporting those serious-looking black glasses, and more comfortable. On Friday, however, a Texas grand jury indicted Perry, 64, on charges of coercion and abuse of power. The governor's allies claim this is a partisan witch hunt.
The first choice of the the pro-business party establishment would be Jeb Bush. But the 61-year-old doesn't act like an eager candidate. An influential supporter in an early voting state says contacts with the Bush inner circle have diminished. He has huge name recognition, yet registers mediocre numbers in both primary and general-election polls.
Walker, 46, a success in a blue state, was considered in the first tier. But a mini-scandal and a tight re-election this autumn have dashed his prospects.
Some smart party strategists still think they should look to the state houses. Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal is interested. Conservatives mention Indiana's Mike Pence, and if John Kasich wins a big re-election in Ohio, he will make the list.
The most surprising chatter lately has been about a former governor: Mitt Romney, the losing Republican 2012 nominee. This is ironic given that top party idea-generators such as Representative Paul Ryan -- Romney's running mate and the probable next chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee -- are promoting economic and anti-poverty plans designed to strike distance from Romney's identification with the wealthy.
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