05/10/2013 11:24 am ET Updated Jul 10, 2013

50 Shades of Red: GOP Ponders the 2016 Derby

Apart from John Bolton's call for Obama's impeachment over Benghazi, the 2016 election will probably be the next chance the Republicans will have to capture the presidency. With the current Benghazi hearings, they are trying to reduce the chances that Hillary Clinton will win the Democratic nomination and then ride her Teflon polling to an easy victory over whomever the GOP chooses.

The Republican field seems to be taking shape early -- perhaps in part because permanent political campaign structures are now being mimicked by permanent media campaign coverage structures. Another reason is that the would-be kingmakers in the GOP primary process -- Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh -- are also laying out their respective criteria for rendering their ultimate judgments in anticipation of a weeding-out process that is likely to feature far fewer self-immolation "debates" and more intense voting calendars. These will even include simultaneous regional primaries that will give an advantage to those who get known "early and often" and show the most clout in terms of delivering results in the 2014 Congressional campaign.

The number of potentials is large: it will start out looking like the field of more than a dozen Kentucky Derby contenders that will get whittled down to a "Belmont stakes" group of long distance runners to fight it to the finish. And the biggest crowd, of course, is jockeying for position on the "Right" side of the track. (Mrs. Clinton is more or less conceded "pole" position among the Democrats, even as she prepares to deal with a somewhat muddy track brought on by the reports from Libya.)

The GOP field shows no clear favorite as yet; it includes some veterans of prior races as well as some maiden entries (literally and figuratively). Let's consult the racing form as it stands just now.

Senator Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire seems to have taken up the role vacated by Joe Lieberman as the third amigo of the SpongeBob and Square Pants of the U.S. Senate, John McCain and Lindsay Graham. None of these three has ever seen a Mideast conflict they didn't want the U.S. to enter, although McCain has split off a little on gun controls while Ayotte and Graham are siding with Palin and Limbaugh on that issue -- perhaps in part to make-up for their "liberal" ways on immigration. Ayotte still has to decide on that question, and if she goes with John and Lindsay, she will be crowded out on the Right and have to find a path through the middle of the pack (perhaps as a "favorite daughter" in her early home state primary).

Next comes Bush the Younger, originally considered Bush the Better but now maybe just the Bill Bradley of the Republican Party -- former Florida Governor Jeb Bush. He made a false start at the gate with a less-than-clockwork book roll-out, but has staked a legitimate claim on education issues and is widely regarded as an 'electable' conservative if he can survive the primaries. Big Business prefers him but they don't run the Party any more: no chance of a Palin or Limbaugh nod; also not so good being a "former" when so many other candidates are "current." But he has a chance if he can get to the rail on a muddy track.

Dr. Benjamin Carter got some early attention by upstaging the President at a prayer breakfast. His sharp critique of all things ObamaCare gave the neurosurgeon a leg up on the Right outside gate, but then he got a little jumpy on their gay marriage issue by confusing it with pedophilia (he should have stayed at the prayer breakfast). Not a flaw that hurts with Limbaugh or Palin, of course, but it did knock him off the "outsider" pedestal formerly occupied by Herman Cain. He'll have to raise his game to compete with the real hard Right pros to stand any chance.

Speaking of hard Right, is there anyone with a quicker pedigree in their terms than Senator Ted Cruz of Texas? Name rhymes with "boos," of which he has heard plenty from the Left and Center -- and anyone with seniority in the Senate. No less an authority on political stardom than James Carville has certified Cruz as the most up and coming, bold and talented opponent. While Democrats frame him as the Latin Joe McCarthy for his baseless "wife-beating" suggestion that Chuck Hagel might have been in the pay of the North Koreans, the Republican base just eats him up, and no one has yet raised his "birther" issue -- heretofore so important among Republicans -- because he was born in Canada. Democrats would give him a pass on that one just to see him in the race... and see what his savage tongue can do to bloody more experienced GOP opponents.

Then there's Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey: no doubt Ted Cruz and others will attempt to take down this moderate "apostate" as quickly as they can so he doesn't survive until a regional primary -- perhaps in the old "Midwest" -- that might cotton to his brand of union-bashing, media-bashing, budget-cutting but gay and immigrant friendly posture, not to mention his background as a criminal prosecutor and a guy who "tells it like it is" and "gets things done." Limbaugh and Plain will overdo their hatred against this guy, and if Clinton looks like the opponent, Christie has a change on the inside if Bush steps away, and if his stomach surgery helps him get down to his high school playing weight (so folks don't have to worry too much about who his VP pick is).

Now that we're out of the C's (and there isn't even a Bachmann again for the B's), we can jump all the way to the back of the alphabet (unless Huntsman comes back to haunt us), starting with the son of another 2012 veteran, Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky. He's the candidate most willing to talk about being a candidate, and he's out to capture the "Libertarian Right" flag early. In this way, he's sort of immune to the Palin-Limbaugh endorsement game, because he inherits a pre-existing movement that doesn't at the moment have another credible leader. Also, his stand on drones (not to mention joints) gives him an interesting appeal to younger voters his Party has failed to capture despite their resistance to being taken for granted by the Democrats. Immigration will be a key issue for him, too, as with Ayotte. Which way he leans will determine where he has to run on the track.

The next "P" in the Republican pod is o course Governor Rick Perry of Texas. This time he has homeboy Cruz to contend with, but Rick is still the "closet" pick of both Palin (he reminds Sarah of Todd on his good days) and Limbaugh (he reminds Rush of Jefferson Davis). But Rick lacks other confederates in the Party, and he won't have Ben Bernanke to kick around any more.

The last "P" may be senator Rob Portman of Ohio: he's a statesmanlike "adult" conservative with a gay offspring: all this probably disqualifies him, but could make a run if Bush doesn't.

Senator Marco Rubio and Congressman Paul Ryan are both in the middles of the two biggest issues in Congress: immigration and the budget, but they're not too busy to plan ahead for 2016. Ryan has already been around the track as VP candidate -- but he has trouble remembering that Ayn Rand was an atheist, not a Catholic. In addition the improving economy is letting a little air out of his big issue -- reducing the national debt. Economic "nature" is taking its course. Rubio has had the courage not heretofore seen in the Party to stand up to Limbaugh, going on Rush's radio show to actually argue (respectfully) with the Pope of Republican Church in favor of immigration reform. Rush might even endorse him to hide the fact that he made mince meat of Limbaugh's arguments!

Rick Santorum will bring his sweater vest back to the campaign if he can raise enough money, but he will find other Catholic contenders out front of him in that important respect. And Governor Scott Walker of recall fame might give it a go, if only to keep his name in focus for the VP slot (but Wisconsin VP's haven't fared well recently).

That gives us a solid dozen candidates at the gate. And there have been a few early "scratches" who might rehab and get in: Bobby Jindal (suffering a popularity gap in Louisiana due to fumbling tax reform), and Bob McDonnell of Virginia, who has some explaining to do about campaign and finance and wedding catering. Scott Brown might even try the ultimate comeback -- no more audacious than Sanctum Santorum after he was dumped from the Senate. Fifteen's probably enough!

But what about Newt, you say? Did we forget? Yes, we forgot Gingrich. On purpose.