Clinton v. Who? No Clear Top Candidate for GOP in 2016

Republican field in 2016 has been diminished.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R- Fla., left, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, right.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie were both considered 2016 GOP front-runners, but have watched their popularity decline. 

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A year ago the batch of Republicans waiting in the on-deck circle to pursue the presidency looked like one of the strongest potential crop of candidates the party’s fielded in decades.

Now, precisely two years from the first 2016 nominating contest, some of the GOP’s biggest stars have experienced a humbling fall from grace, exposing significant vulnerabilities and adding fresh volatility to an already muddled primary race in the making.

“We don’t have a perfect candidate out there.  And we’ve got all kinds of people with questions to ask,” says veteran New Hampshire Republican political hand Tom Rath.  “The party is still in a place of self-examination.  There’s no natural leader.”  

[READ: Charlie Crist Dishes on Obama, Palin, Rove in New Book]

Fresh-faced Sen. Marco Rubio, once dubbed the “savior” of the party, now dwells near the bottom of Republican preferences, having been chastened by conservatives for taking a leading role on immigration reform.  His abrupt lurch back to the right -- most notably on display in his support for the fall government shutdown -- irked more mainline Republicans who questioned his political astuteness.

Rubio’s youth, compelling personal story and raw talent will keep him a contender, but even some of his early admirers have privately wondered if he lacks the political deftness and gravitas required to bridge the ongoing fissures between establishment and grass root Republicans.

“I think the immigration battle has been associated with his youth and inexperience with the political game,” says Katie Packer Gage, Mitt Romney’s 2012 deputy campaign manager.  “I think someday Marco Rubio will be president of the United States or at least the Republican nominee.  I just don’t know if this is his time.  He feels a little young yet to me.  I think this time around we’re not going to go with someone out of the Senate.”

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who ended the year atop most national polls as the clear front-runner to carry his party’s torch and the most competitive challenger to Democrat Hillary Clinton, has watched his popularity nosedive as a result of the George Washington Bridge traffic scandal that has already ensnared four members of his administration.

The post-election glow that he hoped to bask in as he took over the helm as chairman of the Republican Governors Association has dimmed so dramatically the committee felt the need to reassure reporters last month with a jarring two-line statement that Christie would continue to travel the country on its behalf.

The ordering of traffic lane closures by Christie’s top aides to punish a Democratic mayor has damaged the governor’s image as a bipartisan figure, despite his repeated and adamant denials about prior personal knowledge of the scheme.  But his harshest critics still believe the incident will continue to snowball and prove him to have shaded the truth, virtually quashing his White House dreams. 

The first-in-the-nation caucus state of Iowa was never going to be hospitable turf for a brash-talking, finger-wagging, non ideological northeastern governor, but Hawkeye State GOP operatives said his climb there has become steeper as a result of the controversy.

“He had the opportunity to be the mainstream candidate in Iowa by coalescing the folks that aren’t the liberty folks and social conservatives.  But this puts a big question mark.  They’re probably looking for someone else now,” says Doug Gross, a former gubernatorial candidate who chaired Mitt Romney’s 2008 campaign in the state.  “There was some interest and excitement about him, so frankly this has set some folks on their heels.”

[ALSO: Chris Christie Still Denies Knowing About Bridgegate]

One potential prospect whose presidential aspirations are completely kaput is Bob McDonnell.

The former Virginia governor, who boasted sterling approval ratings in a purple state all the way up through the fall election, is now trying to stay out of prison after being indicted for taking gifts in exchange for doing political favors on behalf of a campaign donor.

McDonnell could’ve easily been included in the party’s stable of top tier governors, able to champion executive experience; now his legacy will be whether he ends up a felon.

As a result, a pack of governors from the middle of the country will fight it out for that coveted mantle, with Govs. Scott Walker, Bobby Jindal and Rick Perry all positioning themselves for a run.  But Perry is often left out of public polling altogether -- a slight at his perceived viability after his embarrassing 2012 campaign -- and Walker and Jindal are largely unknown outside of their home states.

Furthermore, some Republicans think Jindal lacks the charisma to capture the imagination of the party and Walker is confronting a serious re-election challenge in Wisconsin this year while prosecutors continue to probe the spending surrounding the effort to beat back a recall attempt of him last year.  

Fighting over the most conservative factions of the party are Sens. Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, each who peaked in popularity with Republicans at different points last year, but have since seen their numbers level out.  

Cruz actually vaulted to the top of at least one national Republican poll in the aftermath of his filibuster that led to the government shutdown.  Paul experienced a similar bump after his own talk-a-thon to protest the nomination of CIA Director John Brennan.

But achieving front-runner staying power like Clinton has been unachievable for anyone on the Republican side.

“In this media environment, nobody can be in first place for very long.  You just get devoured.  There’s no place to go but down,” mused one operative advising one of the potential candidates.

In fact, in each of the last three national GOP polls, there’s been a different leader, with CNN placing Paul ahead, Public Policy Polling giving the edge to former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee and ABC News-The Washington Post calculating 2012 GOP Vice President nominee Rep. Paul Ryan as the top choice.

Other polls in the early primary states of Iowa and South Carolina have showcased Huckabee’s staying power.  Another survey in New Hampshire produced Romney in the catbird seat, prompting him to repeat the world “no” 11 times when asked if he’d run a third presidential race.

[MORE: Amid 2014 Retirements, Pelosi Pledges to Run Again]

The fluidity and instability of the field of contenders may be in part why some strategists are feeling out even more alternatives.    

“I’ve known people who’ve gone to suggest to Susana Martinez that she ought to run,” says longtime GOP strategist Charlie Black, citing the New Mexico governor who is heavily favored for re-election this year.

Martinez hasn’t signaled any interest in the top job, but is often-cited by Republican insiders as the most prized vice presidential candidate for whoever emerges from the 2016 primary scrum.

“If our nominee is not a woman and they don’t do everything in their power to get her to run with them, I think they’re incredibly naive,” says Gage.

Operatives have a fair point when they dismiss all of the early horse-race haggling, repeating the time-honored platitude that polling this early is largely a result of pure name recognition and therefore mostly unimportant.

Fundraising prowess, developing a policy portfolio and laying the groundwork for a well-oiled organization are deemed far more worthwhile at this early vantage point.

But the contrast with the Democratic campaign-in-waiting -- and Clinton’s domination over it -- is stark.

While the former secretary of State is the odds on favorite to carry her party’s torch, there’s not even broad consensus among Republican elites on who belongs in the top tier of GOP candidates.  

That’s why one presidential campaign veteran suggests Republicans should keep their eyes focused on the most immediate challenge: the midterms.

“The world has changed in the last six weeks, because of bridgegate.  [It’s] shuffled the field,” says Scott Reed, Bob Dole’s campaign manager in 1996.  “It means everybody should be focused on 2014.”