POLITICS
01/16/2015 11:36 am ET Updated Jan 16, 2015

Battle Lines For 2016 Emerge As Republican Hopefuls Unveil Campaign Themes

WASHINGTON -- To run for president in 2016, potential candidates must formally register before May 1, 2015, making the first months of this year a crucial time for them to weigh their options. Over the next 104 days, each member of the potential Republican roster, which includes governors, senators, has-beens and long shots, must decide whether to invest the next two years and millions of dollars into a bloody political battle -- where the prize is the chance to wage an even bigger war.

In speeches and interviews across the country this week, nearly a dozen potential GOP presidential candidates debuted the political messages and key issues that will define their campaigns. The events gave the public, and potential donors, the first glimpses of a crowded primary field that in many ways mirrors the internal divisions in the GOP.

"When you set out to design a presidential campaign, there are always three M's: Message, Money, and Mission," said Bob Walker, a political strategist and former Republican congressman from Pennsylvania. "What you're seeing right now is the Message."

Early this week in Washington, two potential candidates, Sens. Ted Cruz (Texas) and Rand Paul (Ky.) gave speeches at the conservative Heritage Foundation, each strategically highlighting issues to further his national ambitions. Cruz laid out an ambitious policy agenda that included repealing Common Core education standards, abolishing the IRS, repealing Obamacare and building the Keystone XL pipeline. What all these goals have in common (besides how popular they were with the audience) is that they emphasize Cruz's ferocious opposition to President Barack Obama. Battling the Obama administration has been a hallmark of Cruz's time in the Senate, and it will likely be a strong selling point among voters who identify with the tea party movement.

Instead of playing to the crowd like Cruz did, Paul touted his support for individual rights by arguing that "activist" (practically a four-letter word among conservatives) judges could be a good thing if their rulings expanded individual rights. The next day, Paul spoke in support of gun rights at an event in New Hampshire. On Thursday, he flew to Nevada, where he said voters would appreciate his stance on privacy rights. By the end of the week, he seemed to have emerged as the field's preeminent champion of individual rights, a position he has worked to cultivate during his first term in the Senate.

Like Paul, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush also has trademark issues, though in his case they're not the ones he wants to focus on in a GOP primary. As governor, Bush instituted lofty statewide education benchmarks that closely resemble the Common Core state standards which have been adopted by more than 40 states since 2010. The trouble for Bush is that many conservatives view Common Core as a government takeover of schools. Equally unpopular with the GOP base is Bush's support for comprehensive immigration reform, which was passed by the U.S. Senate in 2013, but stalled in the Republican-controlled House.

Rather than talk about education and immigration, Bush has chosen to focus on a populist economic message he has honed recently, aimed at creating new ways for poor and middle-class Americans to move up the economic ladder. The only drawback of this focus for Bush is that his rivals like it, too. Thus far, at least four of Bush's potential challengers have also indicated that they plan to focus their campaigns on populist themes of creating opportunity and upward mobility for the working class. To campaign strategists, this comes as no surprise.

"The populist economic message is probably going to be there in some way for nearly every candidate in 2016, both Democrats and Republicans," said Walker, who helped engineer the GOP takeover of the House in the early 1990s. "The question then becomes: Which candidate is better at delivering this message to voters? That's what will begin to sort them out."

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who has long been talked about as a potential 2016 contender, published a book this week on his plan to create upward mobility: American Dreams: Restoring Economic Opportunity for Everyone. It seems increasingly likely, however, that Rubio will sit out the presidential race, rather than compete against the likes of Bush and Cruz. He recently said he will not make a final decision about 2016 until later this month, following a meeting with his top donors. If Rubio were to run, though, his hawkish views on foreign policy would likely resonate with GOP voters worried about the turmoil in the Middle East. Rubio is a vocal supporter of increased U.S. sanctions on Iran, as well as Congress' leading critic of normalizing relations with Cuba.

As Rubio retreated from the political fray this week, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney jumped in head first. According to his advisers, Romney plans to rebrand himself as a poverty-fighting populist in his third run for the White House. In 2012, the career private equity investor infamously dismissed the "47% of Americans" who were "dependent on government," so his sudden concern for the poor could prove a tough sell to voters. Perhaps more promisingly, though, he also plans to market himself as a foreign policy hawk. Aides to Romney said on Monday that current events had vindicated the former governor's prediction three years ago about the threat posed by Russia. In a field likely to be stacked with new faces, Romney's foreign policy views could give his third-time candidacy a fresh spin.

Neither Romney nor Bush has won an election in over a decade. That means that they'll need to work extra hard to make sure voters remember their time as governors, said Walker, the GOP strategist. "Politicians who are not on the scene are easily forgotten," he said, "so both of them need to be reintroducing themselves to voters now."

The same is true for former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, another candidate who plans to rebrand himself as a populist in 2016. Best known to voters as a conservative culture warrior, Santorum got a boost in 2012 after winning the Iowa caucuses, though he struggled to connect with voters outside that state. He appears to be trying to remedy that problem with his 2014 book, Blue Collar Conservatives. In the book, Santorum skewers the GOP for failing to understand working-class people. He also lays out his plan for a "pro-growth, pro-worker agenda," a jobs plan that is based mostly on increased drilling, mining and fracking.

Like Santorum, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee has proven in the past that he can win over socially conservative voters, but has accomplished relatively little beyond that. In recent months, Baptist preacher-turned-politician has been sharpening his own populist message, which he sets out in his forthcoming book, God, Guns, Grits, and Gravy. The book diagnoses the GOP with a severe case of elitism and a "seeming indifference to the struggling class." Huckabee also fans the flames of the culture wars, wagging his finger at Hollywood starlets and criticizing racy song lyrics. Still, he remains folksy and likable, traits that are especially important in a primary.

"A lot of the momentum at this early stage in the campaign is about personality," said Tim Hagle, a professor of political science at the University of Iowa. "This is why states like Iowa and New Hampshire are so important [for candidates], because it's really a question of, 'can they connect with voters?'"

On the question of personality, there is no bigger wildcard in the race than retired neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Carson, whose rags-to-riches life story and anti-government rhetoric have helped to make him a conservative darling and a likely 2016 longshot contender. Given that Carson lacks any political experience, his message so far has tended to focus on what's wrong with the world, or with Americans, or with government, or with the media. Speaking at a Republican National Committee retreat in California on Thursday, Carson told the crowd that his perceived liability was in fact an asset: "I will admit, I do not have experience in certain things, like empowering special interests and growing the government and wasting taxpayer money and dishonoring our military and deserting our allies and lying to the people and submitting to the [political-correctness] police."

As Carson struggles to craft a campaign message out of his lack of experience, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has the opposite problem: a governing record that, after five years in office, is so mixed that it's nearly impossible to boil down into a single theme. After winning nationwide praise for his handling of Hurricane Sandy in 2013, Christie's political star began falling thanks to a string of casino closings, a budget shortfall and an ongoing ethics investigation. Nonetheless, on Tuesday Christie delivered a "State of the State" address that read like a preview of his 2016 presidential campaign. He spoke of "a divisiveness and distrust [that] has seeped into our communities and neighborhoods," and he called for "a New Jersey renewal and an American renewal." Christie also took a few swipes at Washington gridlock, railing against those "leaders in Washington [who ... ] stoke division for their own political gain."

Yet political gain is precisely what governors who are eyeing the White House hope to achieve when they blame Washington politics for problems afflicting the nation.

Among these governors is departing Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who is highlighting his ability to overcome partisan gridlock by drawing a contrast between Texas and the nation's capital. “There is not a single accomplishment I have spoken of today that occurred without bipartisan support,” Perry said Thursday in his final address as governor. “Compromise is not a dirty word if it moves Texas forward."

Yet even as Perry spoke of how much Texas has benefitted from his leadership, the list of accomplishments he touted in his speech seemed to be tailor-made for a national audience. He mentioned lower taxes, fewer regulations, better schools and improved security along the U.S. Mexico border -- the perfect set of talking points for a presidential campaign.

Even with a strong record of governing under his belt, though, Perry still needs to overcome the ghosts of his failed previous bid for the GOP nomination. The same is true for Romney, Santorum and Huckabee, the three other repeat candidates likely to enter the 2016 race. While they may have more experience than their rivals in managing a huge national campaign, all four run the risk that voters' enthusiasm for them will be dampened by political déjà vu.

Furthermore, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a relative newcomer on the national stage, signaled on Thursday night that he intends to make voter fatigue an issue in the primary. Speaking at the same RNC meeting that Carson had addressed earlier that day, Walker told the crowd that "people want a fresh, new look [and] new ideas" from the GOP. He urged the party to "find a new, fresh leader out there who can take big bold ideas" from state governments and grassroots advocates, and implement those ideas on a national scale.

Walker also heaped blame on Washington in much the same way that Christie and Perry did -- with one key difference. For the Wisconsin governor, Washington is synonymous with the "big-government special interests" who led a recall effort against him in 2013. After a bitter and polarizing fight, Walker won the recall vote, but after that he abandoned any pretext of being nonpartisan. He peppered his speech on Thursday with stories about his past political fights with unions and state employees, and emphasized the way he "took the power out of the hands of the big-government special interests."

Over the coming weeks, Walker and the other candidates will have plenty of chances to try out their campaign themes before GOP crowds, and to adjust if needed. Still, messages make up only one-third of the engine that drives a presidential campaign. "Message helps drive money, and money helps drive mission, which is how you eventually win," said Bob Walker, the strategist.

"What you need is to be able to convey to voters what makes you more credible than anyone else to deliver your message."

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