The Presidential Candidates – First Tier

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Wes Enos is a contributing writer to Wheels Down Politics – Iowa.

The Iowa Caucus season has officially begun. After two cattle calls for Presidential candidates hosted by Congressman Steve King, and Iowa agriculture magnate Bruce Rastetter as well as several smaller events hosted by individual candidates across the state, the mad dash across Iowa for the Republican nomination is well underway.

So, as we begin this 4-year political pilgrimage to the Hawkeye State, what better way to kick off the season of political blogging than to take an in-depth view of each of the candidates? We’ve broken the field down into three categories with an analysis of where each candidate stands today. These positions are likely to swing wildly over the course of the next 10 months, but it gives us a nice lineup of everyone’s starting position.

We’ll start with candidates that I would consider to be “First Tier” meaning that they have a perceived fundraising and support base, coupled with constant polling numbers that give them an opportunity to control the race from its earliest stages.

FIRST TIER

Scott Walker 0002Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker – Walker was catapulted to the front of the pack in Iowa following an outstanding performance at the Iowa Freedom Summit hosted by Congressman Steve King in Des Moines last month. Since then, Walker has begun to amass an impressive list of influential supporters in Iowa. It’s difficult to not be impressed by the Wisconsin Governor’s accomplishments in office, and his stump speech has dramatically improved. Walker is the Republican’s man-of-the hour in the 2016 Presidential contest.

However, if we learning anything in the 2012 Presidential primary it is that front-runner status is fleeting. Once you’ve established yourself as the frontrunner, literally every other campaign is going to try to come up with a way to knock you off of your pedestal. They’ll hit you with a barrage of issue-based attacks, try to draw you off of your message and undermine you with activists. The higher you climb, the greater the scrutiny of everything you say and do, as well as everything you’ve ever said or done. The trick for Walker is to maintain momentum and consolidate your gains, which is much more difficult to do than most people realize at this stage of the race. Still, Walker has won three statewide elections in a Democrat-leaning state in the last 4 years. He’s no stranger to scrutiny but the danger for Walker is very real. If Walker can’t hang onto the lead, the narrative will simply be that he peaked too early and couldn’t maintain.

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Rand Paul 0001Kentucky Senator Rand Paul – Paul begins the race in an interesting and somewhat cumbersome position. Paul benefits from a pre-existing network in Iowa left behind by the two previous campaigns of his father. This gives Rand an edge in early organizational efforts, but it also places him at a disadvantage in some ways.

It’s safe to say that Rand Paul is not Ron Paul and his appeal will likely be more broad, but with that more broad appeal comes the danger of alienating the core constituency that elevated Ron Paul to his 3rd place finish in Iowa four years ago. In 2012, Paul was able to add a healthy portion of Iowa’s evangelical voting base to his constituency, however a general reluctance to take the elder Paul as a serious contender throughout most of the 2012 primary led to a relative lack of scrutiny of his positions.

The fact is, Paul’s hardline Libertarianism is largely out-of-step with the core beliefs of the Evangelical voters that joined the Paul coalition in 2012. This led to an unlikely alliance that, under normal circumstances, should have been easily fractured. Rand wont have that luxury in 2016. He’s already regarded as a national frontrunner, and the scrutiny will come early and it will be intense. Paul will need to find a way to strike a sort of balance between his core Libertarian base, while finding inroads into other Republican factions if he wants to succeed where his father failed.

Paul already seems to understand this problem and has done a great job of diversifying his national organization with a plethora of new advisors and managers, breaking from the usual list of managers from the Paul-Inner-Circle. Still, for the Paul campaign, 2016 will be as much about herding cats, as it will be about anything else.

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Mike Huckabee 0001Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee – Huckabee begins the race with a strong network of dedicated volunteers left over from his 2008 campaign, but 8 years of transforming from politician to television personality has left much of his support scattered.

Even his 2008 Iowa Caucus campaign manager has moved on, recently signing with Governor Walker’s 2016 campaign. This has left the duty of rallying his forces in the hands of several unpaid volunteers with little to no experience building or cultivating a political apparatus. That isn’t to say that this situation is a bad thing, it’s simply a good representation of what the Huckabee brand really is. It’s an organic movement based largely on Huckabee’s ability to make personal connection with people, making them go out of their way to do anything they can to help him.

Huckabee is not to be underestimated. His even-tempered charm has only improved during his long political hiatus, as has his knowledge of foreign policy issues, his general name ID and likely his list of donors. Huckabee won’t start off as the front runner in 2016 in Iowa, and that’s probably a good thing for him. It keeps his initial expectations in-check and it saves him from having a giant target painted on his back. This dynamic will likely give Huckabee the breathing room he needs to travel the state, re-forge his personal connections and prepare for his next run at the Republican nomination.

Still, Huckabee faces significant challenges. He will still need to deal with expectations. Gone are the days when raising a few hundred thousand dollars in a quarter to keep the lights on in his campaign office will be adequate. Huckabee doesn’t need to raise the most money, but he needs to look competitive or his base voters will simply move on to greener pastures. He’s also got some tough issues like Common Core and Immigration Reform to deal with, and some of the more aggressive campaigners can use them to puncture holes in Huckabee’s coalition before he gets back up to his former strength.

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Jeb Bush 0001Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush – In 1999, Jeb’s brother, then Governor George W. Bush jumped into the Presidential primary with all of the force of an unstoppable juggernaut, churning its way to the nomination and eventually the White House. By comparison, the beginning of Jeb Bush’s campaign has been lack-luster at best and if we’re really being candid, almost feeble.

In national polling Bush has hardly taken the kind of commanding lead that his brother established early on, often lagging behind Walker, with upstarts like Carson, Huckabee and Paul nipping at his heels. That isn’t to say that Bush’s campaign is over before it starts.

Just because Jeb hasn’t taken forceful command of the 2016 Presidential field early like his brother did doesn’t mean that he can’t or that he eventually won’t … His last name is, after all still “Bush” and with that comes a huge amount of money. The kind of massive fundraising prowess Bush can muster should NEVER be underestimated.

A campaign can move the needle a long way on a lot of issues when they have the fire power to buy up the airways and drown out their opponent’s message … or at the very least, turn all political messaging into obnoxious white-noise to the average voter that they’ll simply tune out leaving the candidate with the ability to go up strong and early (Bush,) as the defacto winner … It also helps that Jeb Bush is a smart and likable guy and his tenure as Governor of Florida was largely viewed as a success.

The bottom line to remember with Jeb Bush’s campaign is this: Don’t use his brother’s campaign as a measuring stick for Jeb’s campaign. George W. Bush’s campaign was like a freight train that knocked the others out of the way early. Jeb Bush’s campaign will be more like a meat grinder. Slowly grinding away at the field in a sort of political war of attrition, possibly leaving only Jeb with the resources to compete down the stretch.

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Part 2 — the Second Tier candidates — coming soon…

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