Three years ago this week, Mitt Romney officially clinched the GOP’s 2012 presidential nomination. One year from now, even with a deeper field of candidates, we ought to have a pretty good idea who will be the Republicans’ 2016 standard bearer. In the meantime, Georgia will play an unusually important role in helping narrow the field with an earlier primary date, and the networks holding debates starting in August have to decide how to who makes it onto a stage built for only 10, and who doesn't. With all that in mind, here’s an early breakdown of the putative field (meaning: declared candidates, and those who have taken some kind of formal step toward a candidacy, such as forming an exploratory committee).
The top tier: The candidates who are most likely to win the nomination.
- Jeb Bush: The Bush name, of course, means he has a high floor; the question is whether it also means he has a lower ceiling than he otherwise might have. He governed conservatively in two terms as Florida’s governor but irks the base with his stances on Common Core, immigration. Worrisome: His lack of preparedness for a reporter's question about Iraq.
- Rand Paul: A first-term senator from Kentucky, he too has a famous last name that he will try to use as an advantage, not an anchor. The caucuses in Iowa and Nevada, which reward the campaign organization his father excelled at, and the primary in New Hampshire, whose voters often back mavericks, could hand him three early wins. If so, watch out.
- Marco Rubio: Another first-term senator, another Floridian. He offers a blend of youthfulness and (mostly) traditional policy positions, allowing him to straddle the establishment/tea party line fairly well. His Cuban heritage should be an asset among GOP voters who believe the party's ticket needs some diversity.
- Scott Walker: He’s won three elections (including a recall) to earn two terms as governor of Wisconsin, the kind of blue Midwestern state that could turn red with the right candidate. Walker may be trusted even more than Rubio by the establishment and tea-party camps that have been wrestling for control of the party, though both men face questions about their immigration stances. He'll visit Atlanta next week.
Do not underestimate: These candidates don’t necessarily rank in the second tier today, but they have the upside.
- Chris Christie: Did he miss his chance in 2012? Maybe. But New Jersey's second-term governor has gotten good reviews so far, including at the Georgia GOP convention , as he sells a package of candor, willingness to make hard choices, and ability to defeat and then work with Democrats.
- Ted Cruz: Written off by many as an extreme political stuntman, the first-term Texas senator is too smart not to find ways to broaden his appeal . Probably the most dynamic speaker of the lot, he should shine in the debates.
- Carly Fiorina: She won’t win the nomination, but the former tech executive is the only female candidate for a party that expects to face Hillary Clinton next fall. If her sharp focus and attacks on Clinton resonate with primary voters, they could earn her a VP consideration.
- John Kasich: The second-term governor of Ohio, a state the GOP absolutely has to win in November 2016. He’ll try to overcome skepticism about his state’s expansion of Medicaid with arguments for compassion -- and his strong record as a fiscal hawk in Congress.
Do not overestimate: These candidates have probably already peaked.
- Benjamin Carson: Like Fiorina, he’s never been elected. Unlike her, he’s never even run for office . And unlike the four presidents to be elected with no prior political experience (Washington, Taylor, Grant, Eisenhower), he’s not a war hero.
- Mike Huckabee: The former Arkansas governor has name ID from a 2008 run and a show on Fox News. But he’s likely to split his target audience -- blue-collar social conservatives -- with Rick Santorum (below).
- Rick Perry: If the three-time governor of Texas was going to be elected president, it was going to be in 2012. Oops.
- Rick Santorum: He was the last not-Romney standing four years ago, in a race where GOP voters tried not to nominate Romney. He still lost. It won’t get better for the ex-senator from Pennsylvania.
Bottom tier: These candidates won’t experience anything resembling a “peak.”
- Lindsey Graham: The senator is running third in his home state of South Carolina. He’s running as the defense hawk in a field that has plenty of those. He’s running … why?
- Bobby Jindal: Louisiana's second-term governor is a brilliant guy. But he can’t rev up a crowd and isn’t terribly popular at home. This year’s Tim Pawlenty, except this year’s field is tougher.
- George Pataki: If Rudy Giuliani couldn’t win in 2008 as New York City's ex-mayor, Pataki ain’t winning in 2016 as New York state's ex-governor.
- Donald Trump: Ha!