The GOP 2016 Primary Has Already Begun

10/07/2013 07:32 am ET | Updated Oct 07, 2013

WASHINGTON -- If you're a Republican and you are running for president, Congress is the new Iowa: the first battleground of the next race.

Congress used to be a place in which to demonstrate legislative skill. It is now, like the Iowa caucuses, a place to make a Statement. Which means that a presidential candidate can get a jump on the rest of the field by playing up to the most conservative elements of the party, but it also means that a prospective candidate can marginalize him- or herself for the rest of the contest.

In other words, if you aren't careful, you could be Rick Santorum.

That risk doesn't seem to bother Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Marco Rubio of Florida, or Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.

That mixed blessing has also led some conservative GOP operatives to think that the congressional caucuses will ultimately be a sideshow for the main event, which will result in the selection of a governor, or former governor, as the party's standard-bearer in 2016.

"The problem with being in Congress is that you can't really control your own narrative," said Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Justice. "There are too many votes and too many extraneous factors. Governors can control their own stories better."

In the meantime, for Cruz, Paul, Rubio and Ryan, running at and from Congress is the order of the day.

Recent polls show the four bunched together, each with poll numbers between 10 percent to 20 percent as a potential candidate. Their first test is to distinguish and distance themselves this year from their congressional brethren.

Voters may think the Crisis of October is about Obamacare, or the stand-in-the-doorway theories of the tea party, or President Barack Obama's desire to restore adult discipline to the Kindergarten Kongress. But the crisis in fact is being driven by the maneuverings of those four. Eschewing the old campaign playbook, they aren't waiting a decent interval to, say, let Obama try his hand at governing in a second term.

Conventional wisdom says that senators and congressmen rarely make it all the way to the White House directly from Capitol Hill. But when then-Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois in 2008 became the first U.S. senator to do it since JFK, he set a precedent that may have changed how members of Congress approach a presidential campaign.

Mitt Romney amplified the trend in 2012 by plucking Ryan out of relative obscurity to be his running mate, based on little more than Ryan's success at spinning the Beltway pundits.

Combine this recent history with the ever-more obsessive and instant refresh rate of social media, and the attraction of running from the well of the House or the floor of the Senate seems irresistible.

Here is a look at how the Congress Four are faring so far in the caucuses:

TED CRUZ

Measured by the amount of fear and loathing he generates in what used to be called the "mainstream media," Cruz's starring role in the current government shutdown has been a raging success.

When the Heritage Foundation, which once championed the core ideas of Obamacare, joined with other conservative groups three years ago to plot the demise of the program, Cruz wasn't on their radar screen. But by last summer -- only a few months after Cruz was sworn in -- they had found an eager ally in the freshly minted senator from Texas.

Cruz's enthusiasm for star-making pseudo-filibusters grew after he watched rival Rand Paul execute a real one in early March on drone policy. Without Cruz's fiery leadership, it's not clear that the government would now be shut down or that a debt ceiling crisis would be in the offing.

His crusade hasn't prevented the more or less full launch of Obamacare, but it has succeeded in tying Washington in the kind of self-destructive knots that anti-government conservatives love to see.

Cruz sees an opportunity to become an all-out tea party avatar, but some conservative strategists wonder if he hasn't already overplayed his hand. After all, Obamacare is now a reality, while the GOP is getting most -- not all, but most -- of the blame for the shutdown.

Cruz's role has also put him at odds with one potential key ally, Virginia Attorney General and GOP gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli. The government shutdown has furloughed more than 100,000 federal workers in Virginia, and Cuccinelli has decided to keep his distance from Cruz at what was supposed to be a love-fest political rally over the weekend.

"[Cruz] may have gotten a little too far out there," said Craig Shirley, a conservative consultant based in Northern Virginia.

RAND PAUL

Paul was the first of the current crop of Republicans to use Congress as a presidential parade ground. His issue was drones, and his moment early last March was a 13-hour talking filibuster of the nomination of James Clapper to the head of the CIA. Paul declared that he would talk until he got assurances from the administration that it would never deploy drones in the United States against alleged terrorists, U.S. citizens or anyone else.

Attorney General Eric Holder eventually made just such an explicit declaration.

Paul's tactic shrewdly drew on his own libertarianism to reach simultaneously to the anti-war left and to GOP conservatives who hate big government. He got the assurances he wanted and raves for targeted, principled obstructionism.

With a broad fundraising base rooted in his father Ron Paul's organization, the Kentucky senator has a built-in donor base, while Cruz has to go prospecting for one -- which he is busily doing.

"I'd have to say that, despite all the attention Cruz has gotten, Rand Paul is the one who has made the most progress so far this year," Shirley said.

MARCO RUBIO

The articulate junior senator from Florida, elected in the tea party wave of 2010, took his own star turn earlier this year, championing a bipartisan effort at immigration reform that included a pathway to citizenship for undocumented workers in the U.S. The effort was heroic or naïve, depending on your point of view, but in any case it so far has gotten nowhere -- apart from earning the enmity of the new tea party ayatollahs, led by former Sen. Jim DeMint.

Rubio has kept a low profile since, but has been carefully working the donor circuit, and is thought at this early stage to be a favorite of Las Vegas mega-donor Sheldon Adelson.

So that's something.

PAUL RYAN

After his meteoric rise to the 2012 ticket and his equally spectacular failure to help Romney carry the Midwest, Ryan tried to make a comeback with conservatives.

"He's still got too much Romney on him," said Shirley, as if the contact had caused an odor.

Ryan tried to wash it off by using his position as chairman of the House Budget Committee to put forth a 100-proof, tea party-soaked spending plan.

The plan was dead on arrival in the Senate, but it wasn't meant to be taken seriously in the Senate. It was a (presidential) campaign document. A document from which Ryan may yet get to work, if the government shutdown ends and congressional negotiators indeed ever get to the "table" of legislative compromise.

But for now, the country is stuck in (Republican) campaign mode.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misidentified Sen. Rand Paul's father, former Rep. Ron Paul.

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