Today's news about the Republican presidential primary is that Rob Portman, Senator from Ohio, is in New Hampshire.
Trips to New Hampshire (and Iowa and South Carolina) at this point have two purposes. Candidates compete for scarce local resources in these key states, including everything from volunteers to the professionals who know how to put together a local ground organization. The more important point of such visits, however, is to signal to the national party network that a politician is running -- at least, in Josh Putnam's useful formulation, running for 2016, if not necessarily in 2016.
Washington Post reporter Robert Costa, who has excellent sources among conservatives, speculates that Portman's step forward might indicate that former Florida Governor Jeb Bush is reluctant to run. After a flurry of activity in the spring, Bush doesn't appear to be taking active steps toward a candidacy, and may even be retreating. However, all candidates are not equal. A relative heavyweight such as Bush has a less urgent need to introduce himself to Republican party actors.
So far, the Republican side of the 2016 presidential race remains amorphous, unless you can call "everybody in!" a definitive shape. There are about a dozen viable candidates who have taken at least preliminary steps toward a candidacy, either with pilgrimages to early states, speeches on national issues or the ever-popular displays of coyness about their intentions. In no particular order, I count Bush, Portman, Marco Rubio, Rick Perry, Chris Christie, Mike Pence, Scott Walker, Paul Ryan, John Kasich, Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee and Bobby Jindal. I've left out Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, who I take to be too far from the party mainstream on policy, and Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who may be more viable than Paul but probably has alienated too many party actors already.
It seems highly unlikely that Republicans will have a 14-candidate field (including Paul and Cruz, but excluding nonviable candidates such as former surgeon Ben Carson) next August. Indeed, it seems more likely that at least a few will disappear from that list within six months. Some will discover a pressing need to spend more time with their families, if only because they believe their families offer fewer cold shoulders than they will receive in meetings with important Republicans. Even some candidates with moderate levels of support will decide they're unwilling to do the things that presidential candidates must do -- at least not at the odds they calculate for actually reaching the Oval Office. Over the past several cycles, Republicans, in particular, have been extremely effective at winnowing their serious candidates to the point that few viable ones remain by the time the Iowa caucuses begin.
For now, however, pretty much every Republican who has poked around the presidential contest is ostensibly running in some fashion. If there is an early leader, or even set of leaders, it certainly isn't very obvious. So why not Portman?
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