Looking Ahead: Top Contenders for the 2016 Presidential Election

With 2012 barely in the rearview mirror, these politicians are eyeing their path to the White House.

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Even though the 2012 election was just decided, it's never too early to start looking ahead to the next presidential election. Both Democrats and Republicans have a slate of bright prospects on the horizon. Here's a look at the hottest names in 2016 politics right now.

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Democrats

Vice President Joe Biden: The vice president sent journalists atwitter on Tuesday when he said he'd likely have the opportunity to cast a vote for himself again in the future. Biden, a 30-plus-year Senate veteran who now has experience as the White House No. 2, has been coy about his 2016 intentions so far. In fact, later on Tuesday, he joked that he would be running for county councilman as if to dissuade some speculation about his future plans. But former vice presidents nearly always top the list of potential contenders, thanks to their top name recognition and obvious experience handling top issues. Biden is a well-respected pol among his peers, though often ridiculed by the media and public thanks to his frequent gaffes.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: Clinton is a unique American political figure, having successfully transitioned from an at-times unpopular first lady to New York Senator to widely popular secretary of state. She's managed to go from the top target of Republican mockery in the 1990s to one of the few politicians who engendered genuine respect from colleagues and pundits on both sides of the aisle. Her hard-nosed 2008 campaign against Barack Obama sharpened her retail politicking, but combined with her grueling travel schedule of the last four years, she's vowed to stay out of politics. Nonetheless, she's widely regarded as the top Democratic White House contender should she change her mind. She's already got one endorsement in the bag—her husband, former President Bill Clinton—who would love to hit the campaign trail again.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo: Despite the fact that the New York governor has tried to keep a very low profile despite holding a very high-profile job, insiders all believe Cuomo has designs on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. He's already got executive branch experience, having served as secretary of Housing and Urban Development under Bill Clinton. As governor, he has championed both liberal social causes, legalizing same-sex marriage despite a Republican-controlled state Senate, and has showed fiscally conservative bona fides, resisting raising taxes and making cuts to balance the state budget. There's no doubt of Cuomo's loyalty to the Clintons, but should Hillary choose to take a pass, he'll likely step up to the plate.

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Republicans

Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan: Ryan, coming off the 2012 campaign, transitioned smoothly from one of 435 members of the House of Representatives to the bright lights of the presidential campaign. In addition to learning how to work crowds of thousands in dozens of different states, Ryan has also excelled on the debate stage. His performance against a fiery Joe Biden was widely praised, delivering no knockout blows but largely holding his own against his more experienced opponent. Ryan has made a name for himself in the House as a budget hawk, crafting the Republican alternative to Democratic proposals. Many said Mitt Romney erred in picking someone who had put his name on proposals to drastically alter the popular Medicare program, but the 2012 race proved voters weren't willing to punish that move at the ballot.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie: New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has been championed by conservatives since his 2010 election. The bombastic governor is known for his straight-talking style, whether he's disparaging reporters for what he thinks are stupid questions or nearly bullying public school teachers who challenge his budget-cutting proposals during his famous town hall meetings. In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, which destroyed his beloved Jersey Shore, Christie also burnished his bipartisan credentials by heaping praise on the federal response, particularly the leadership of President Barack Obama. Christie was an early endorser of Romney in 2012, but only after giving his own bid serious consideration. There's no doubt he'll be doing the same again in 2016.

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio: The charismatic Florida senator is the perfect example of what the Grand Ol' Party needs to widen its appeal among the American electorate. Just 41 years old and of Cuban descent, Rubio is more than just the face of a more diverse Republican Party. He awed crowds earlier in 2012, both at the Conservative Political Action Conference and the Republican National Convention, with his rags-to-riches tale of his childhood. His ability to intertwine his family's achievement of the American Dream with the conservative economic philosophy proves he is the most effective messenger of Republican ideals the party has seen in quite some time. Rubio also is obviously comfortable on stage and exudes a tangible charisma that can't be taught.

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  • Rebekah Metzler is a political writer for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow her on Twitter or reach her at rmetzler@usnews.com.