Last week, the field of officially-announced Democratic presidential candidates doubled in size, from one person to two. This week, the Republican presidential field is likewise going to double, from three candidates to six. Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Marco Rubio have all previously officially announced their candidacies, and this week they will be joined by Carly Fiorina and Ben Carson (who announced today), and Mike Huckabee (scheduled to announce tomorrow).
I like to examine every official candidate as he or she enters the race, so today let's take a look at all three of the new Republican entrants, in the order of the likely chance they'll have to become a major contender in what is expected to be an incredibly crowded field.
I strive to take every official presidential candidate with all the seriousness that the highest office in the land should demand, but it's tough to call Carly Fiorina anything more than a "vanity candidate." I define that term as "a candidate with a bunch of money and no realistic chance of winning, who wants to see his or her name in the news for a few months and doesn't care how much it costs to achieve this." Herman Cain and (if he ever actually ran) Donald Trump would be other examples of this phenomenon.
Carly Fiorina's candidacy, at heart, is a one-trick pony. That trick is for Fiorina to counter Hillary Clinton by playing "the gender card" on her own. The logic is rather baffling: "Vote against gender-identity politics by voting gender-identity politics for our side!" But that's really all she's got to offer in what is going to be an extremely crowded field. Fiorina thinks she'll be the best person to attack Clinton because there is just no way anyone can accuse her attacks as being sexist.
But beyond this single thin reed, what else could she possibly offer Republican primary voters? Fiorina is trying to tap into the portion of the Republican electorate who believe that "government should be run more like a business." This is somewhat valid, since Republicans are occasionally open to this argument. But the recent track record of Republicans who have managed to sway voters in this fashion isn't all that impressive: George W. Bush, who was supposed to be the "M.B.A. president," and Mitt Romney, that paragon of the business community. What Fiorina (and others of her ilk such as Cain) fail to realize, though, is that both of these men -- one who served two terms as president, and one who won his party's presidential nomination -- actually had a solid base of political experience to go along with their "I can run a business" credentials (call this "Wall Street cred," I suppose...). Think what you want of Bush and Romney, but each had been governor of a big state before their White House runs. Fiorina has no such experience to tout. She ran, once, for Senate, and was soundly thrashed by Barbara Boxer. This was despite spending a whopping amount of money for her losing campaign (those "demon sheep" ads don't come cheap, in other words).
Having no political experience (except getting beaten, once), Fiorina will attempt to run on her record of business experience. Except there's a big problem with this, because her record of running Hewlett-Packard was universally seen as a disaster of epic proportions, and she ended her tenure in disgrace, getting fired by the board (after laying off tens of thousands of employees).
Adding to Fiorina's woes, her run for Senate in California forced her to take some positions that aren't exactly going to be popular with Iowa or South Carolina voters. She ran as a moderate Republican (to be fair, it's the only kind of Republican that even has a prayer of winning a state-wide contest in deep-blue California), but you can bet that each and every position she took in this race will be eventually exploited by her Republican opponents for the 2016 presidential nomination. Fiorina, to her credit, has always known this would be a problem for her in a presidential run, and she's been backtracking on everything she can, as hard as possible. But all those video clips still exist, and they'll come back to haunt her.
That is, if her Republican opponents even bother. Fiorina is polling dead last in the Republican field right now, and that's saying something (due to how big the list is). In polls that even bother to include her name, she's getting from zero to two percent. Granted, even the frontrunners can't break 20 percent, but still, that's pretty dismal. If she does experience a boost from her announcement, though, it'll be short-lived at best. Even on the day of her announcement, Fiorina made two embarrassing rookie mistakes -- she announced the same day someone else did, and she apparently forgot to register carlyfiorina.org, which has an absolutely hilarious page up, for all to view.
Dr. Ben Carson skates pretty close to the "vanity candidate" category as well. He's got zero political experience, and is running essentially because everyone he talks to thinks he should run. He could easily be seen as a one-trick pony as well, but his one trick could take him a lot farther than Fiorina's gender card. Call him a one-and-a-half-trick pony, perhaps. It's easy to see Carson's campaign as essentially just auditioning for his own show on Fox News, but he's got a slightly higher chance of ever catching fire with Republican primary voters, so for me that puts him just slightly out of the vanity candidate realm.
Carson's claim to fame (among Republican primary voters) is that he told off the president, once, right to his face. Yep, that's pretty much it. He gave a speech at a prayer breakfast Barack Obama attended, and Carson told Obama precisely what he thought, much to the delight of Republicans everywhere. He then rode that ticket to conservative stardom as hard as he could, and is now vying for the portion of the Republican electorate that just wants to hear the most outrageous condemnation of Democrats, all the time. That sounds snarky, but please remember that this is a large portion of the Republican primary voter base, so it's nothing to sneeze at.
But even having said all of that, his stridency is really only the "half of a pony trick." His real strength -- much like Carly Fiorina's gender card -- is that he will be the only Republican who can play his own "race card" against Democrats. He can say the most outrageous things that pop into his head about President Obama (or anybody or anything else), and nobody can ever call him racist, since he is black. There's a big problem with this advantage, though: Barack Obama will not be a candidate in 2016. Now, a Herman Cain versus Barack Obama election (in 2012) would indeed have been an amusing thing to watch (for all kinds of reasons), but Democrats are just not going to nominate a black person for president in 2016 -- because no such candidate will be running. This limits Carson's biggest advantage.
Carson has already made a name for himself in the category of "I'm not afraid to say the most extremist things possible about Democrats," but he's still going to have a lot of stiff competition within the 2016 field. As the Republican attacks swing slowly from Barack Obama to Hillary Clinton, there are many others who will be trying to outdo the field in their scathing dismissal of all things Democratic (or, as they would say, "all things Democrat"). At the very least, Rick Perry, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Bobby Jindal, Rick Santorum, and (if he runs) Donald Trump will all be competing to see who can say the most outrageous thing possible about Clinton, Obama, and the Democratic Party. That's a lot of competition, even if Carson has already made some notable contributions in this area (calling Obamacare the "worst thing that has happened to this nation since slavery," for instance).
Carson's other claim to fame in the Republican pack is that he is a very intelligent person. He's a neurosurgeon, after all, and a pioneering one in the field of brain surgery. Even Rand Paul, an eye surgeon, can't really compete with Carson's medical accomplishments. But, in the end, that likely won't be enough for Cardin to win his party's nomination. He may catch fire at some point during the campaign, and vault into the frontrunner ranks, but my guess is that such success will be fleeting, at best. Sooner or later Carson is going to say something which proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that he would lose the general election, and the Republican voters will turn to someone else. Carson is currently polling at around six percent (which is actually pretty respectable, putting him solidly in the middle of the Republican field), but I'm guessing his appeal will be limited in the end.
Mike Huckabee is the most formidable candidate to announce this week, by far. For those with short memories, Huckabee placed second (to John McCain) in delegates in the 2008 nomination race. He even beat Mitt Romney in total delegates, in other words. That's something no other official Republican candidate can claim, and is not to be taken lightly.
Placing second eight years ago is significant for several reasons. First and foremost, Huckabee has already been through a real presidential campaign. The experience of running a national presidential campaign is unique, and he's a veteran of such a run. Second, it means most Republican primary voters already know his name. Name recognition is a big factor in the early days of the campaign (especially when the frontrunner is still polling below 20 percent). Third, he's already proven he can win a lot of votes, which makes big donors a lot less nervous when writing campaign checks.
Huckabee has built on his 2008 campaign and (perhaps even more important, to Republican primary voters) on his stint at Fox News. His name is now a "brand" -- an achievement few others in the Republican Party field can claim (except for possibly Trump, if he runs). Plus, as the former governor of a state, he's got more political experience than much of the field.
His brand will be appealing to Republican voters for a few reasons. He'll be targeting the evangelical vote, as he did in his previous run. He won't be alone in doing so, of course. To some degree or another the entire Republican field will be wooing the religious right vote. And at least four other possible candidates will (if they run, of course) be primarily targeting evangelicals: Ted Cruz, Bobby Jindal, Rick Perry, and Rick Santorum. But Huckabee's the only one of the bunch who is actually an ordained minister, so you've got to see that as an edge in this particular demographic contest.
Huckabee, however, is not just going to be presenting himself as the evangelical candidate to choose. He, obviously, thinks his greatest strength this time around will be as the best "anti-Clinton" in the pack. Huckabee will be making his official campaign announcement in Hope, Arkansas -- where both he and Bill Clinton were born. Not exactly subtle. His primary message is already: "I'm from Arkansas, and I know how to beat the Clintons at the polls." This could take him a long way, in this particular race.
Huckabee, back in 2008, had one quality most of the other Republican hopefuls didn't. Huckabee didn't seem so angry about his conservatism. He put on a smile and spoke in a reasonable voice rather than ranting and raving. He has more charisma than many other prominent Republicans, to put this in a slightly different fashion. That's a very big asset for a politician to have.
However, Huckabee may have already painted himself into a corner. He won't be alone -- there will be other Republican candidates occupying the same space as well. Huckabee seems very likely to make a big deal out of being against gay marriage during his campaign, while other Republicans (whether they publicly admit it or not) are getting to the point where they just want to move on and not talk about it any more. This is all going to come to a head in June, when the Supreme Court rules. If they rule that marriage equality is the law of the land in all 50 states, then there's going to be an eruption of denunciation from the Republican presidential field.
This is quickly going to turn into who can outdo all the other candidates, to court the evangelical vote harder than all the others. While many Republican candidates might be able to stay a little above this fray (people like Rand Paul or Jeb Bush), Huckabee is not going to have the same luxury. Because a big slice of his support base comes from evangelicals, he'll be expected to be as strident as possible in denouncing gay marriage, the Supreme Court, and the "loss of religious freedom." This will, quite likely, nullify any advantage Huckabee might have from not appearing so angry a conservative.
Huckabee, unlike Ben Carson or Carly Fiorina, seems likely to take his place among the frontrunners (loosely defined as the top five or six candidates) fairly soon, if he gets the expected polling bounce from officially announcing his run. He'll have to fight hard to stay there, but he'll soon be spoken of in the same terms as Scott Walker, Jeb Bush, and Marco Rubio. A guy who's got an actual chance at the nomination, in other words. If Huckabee could overlap being the best "anti-Clinton" with also being the best "guy not named Bush" then he's got a real shot at winning. If Huckabee survives past the first round of primaries, it may come down to a question of electability -- whether he's polling better or worse than the other Republicans against Hillary Clinton.
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