Republicans see opportunity in run-up to 2016 election

WASHINGTON — The crowded race for the Republican 2016 presidential nomination has begun, and it promises to be a massive political assault on Barack Obama’s failed presidency.

Unlike the largely weak, untested lineup that sought the GOP nomination in 2012, the emerging field of candidates is mostly made up of experienced contenders who’ve run state governments and have shown they know how to get things done.

America gambled on a rashly inexperienced freshman lawmaker with no executive background and who had never run anything in his life. The result is a nation plagued by enormous troubles, from a chronically underperforming, job-challenged economy to a growing global terrorist menace that threatens our homeland more than ever before.

This field of contenders also includes some freshmen senators, who, like Obama, know how to deliver a pretty effective speech. But my guess is the voters aren’t going to nominate one of them — not until they’ve built a record of achievement behind their ambitions.

What makes the GOP’s rapidly expanding field of White House aspirants impressive is that so many of them are, or have been, governors of big states, with lengthy records of accomplishment. They know how to move their agenda through the political process — often in the face of hostile, Democratic-run legislatures — because they’ve done it.

These are not namby-pamby guys who — like Obama — will have to throw up their hands and run the government solely through go-it-alone, constitutionally questionable executive actions.

Indeed, the Republican lineup is growing by leaps and bounds to the point where the field will likely be the largest in modern political history. At least 25 potential candidates are considering entering the race.

But the betting in this corner is that the governors, and some former governors, will be among the strongest in the race. Among them:

— Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who is signing up some of his party’s top campaign strategists and has already set up a campaign fundraising committee called Our American Revival.

If the GOP is looking for someone who knows how to play hardball, Walker has all the credentials. He’s enacted sweeping budget, pension and labor reforms, survived a bitter, union-led recall election, and then went on to win a second term.

— Ohio Gov. John Kasich not only comes from a pivotal electoral state, he’s transformed it, pounding its once severely high unemployment rate down to a full-employment 5 percent.

He’s a pro-free-market, budget-cutting, low-taxes kind of guy who’s cut the state’s income tax by 10 percent and reignited its economy.

— Then there’s New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, now a two-term governor, who’s been in a nonstop political battle with a tax-happy Democratic legislature. He’s restrained state spending, fought a gas tax hike and survived the Bridgegate scandal.

The combative, battle-scarred Christie has honed his negotiating skills in a bitterly divided Democratic state that may be the toughest training ground for higher office. And he won a second term to boot. He’s running.

The list includes other gubernatorial heavyweights like Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, and former governors Jeb Bush of Florida, Mitt Romney of Massachusetts and Mike Huckabee of Arkansas.

All of these candidates have strengths in their own right, and weaknesses as well.

Bush faces fierce opposition from his party’s conservatives on immigration reform. But in a speech in San Francisco last week, Bush drew strong, sustained applause when he called for reforming immigration laws to offer an earned path to legal status for the nation’s illegal immigrants.

Bush also made clear that the thrust of his campaign will be the economy and an obese, debt-ridden government that needs to be put on crash diet.

“Sixty percent of Americans believe that we’re still in a recession,” he said. “They’re not dumb. It’s because they are in a recession. They’re frustrated … paychecks are weak. Millions of Americans want to move forward in their lives — they want to rise — but they’re losing hope.”

“It is time to challenge every aspect of how government works — how it taxes, how it regulates, how it spends — to open up economic opportunity for all,” Bush said.

Republicans have a number of things going for them in this election cycle, and that’s why they’re drawing so many candidates into the race.

First and foremost is Obama’s presidency and a weak, listless economy that few observers believe will change in any meaningful or dramatic way over the next two years.

But top Republican strategists are betting on something else that’s never mentioned in any of the analyses in the major newspapers: After eight painful years of the Obama presidency, the voters will be looking for a new leader with a new set of policies.

It is unlikely that the country will elect someone whose policies are as close to Obama’s as possible. Like Hillary Clinton, who has supported Obama throughout his mistake-prone, remedial presidency.

But that means next year’s Republican primary voters must nominate a skillful, experienced candidate who runs on a broadly popular agenda for change that appeals to the widest electorate.

No issue is more compelling than an economy that has left tens of millions of Americans behind, produced record levels of poverty, and has shrunk a once-mighty labor force that has given up looking for work.

A close second to that is a dysfunctional, waste-ridden, bloated government that is living far beyond its means and is in need of a top-to-bottom housecleaning.

The candidate who aggressively runs on both of these issues is going to become the next president of the United States.