Op-Ed

GOP hopefuls try to distinguish themselves

Beyond raising barrels of bucks, building an organization and developing a rationale, there are many different ways to run for president. Early starts help, command of the issues is essential, debate performances can be crucial and mistakes, whether big or small, hurt.

As the increasingly complicated 2016 Republican race unfolds, some variety in approaches is becoming evident, both on issues and style.

Only in retrospect will we know who got it right.

Until Mitt Romney suddenly re-emerged last week, the most fascinating aspect of the race may have been those contrasts within the unwieldy GOP field.

I count at least five separate mini-contests: 1) former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush vs. 2012 nominee Romney for the establishment’s traditional “next-in-line” slot; 2) Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul vs. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio for the “new face” banner; 3) Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, outgoing Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence and Dr. Ben Carson to champion the evangelical right;

4) Govs. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, Pence, Perry and, possibly, John Kasich of Ohio for the experience-in-governing executive’s slot; and

5) Bush and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie for backing from party moderates and Romney skeptics.

A bitter battle between Romney, Bush and Christie for establishment donors and voters might make it harder for any of them to defeat their more conservative rivals. But a split among religious conservatives might enable a more moderate aspirant to win, as in 2008 and 2012.

Until Romney’s unexpected move, the most revealing early sub-contests were the Paul-Christie duel on foreign policy and, more recently, what could become a Bush-Christie elimination race.

Bush’s unexpected early announcement played to his positives, showing him to be methodical, careful and well-organized. Meanwhile, though not quite ready to run, Christie seemed inadvertently to stress his negatives with appearances emphasizing a less-than-presidential persona.

Despite a long absence from high-level presidential politics, Bush and his advisers showed they have been paying attention. He sought to avoid the land mines that helped to cripple Romney in 2012 by resigning from business boards and other ventures, directing the release of millions of gubernatorial emails and disclosing he’ll release up to 10 years of tax returns.

The underlying presumption seemed to be that, if anything was politically damaging, better for it to emerge in spring 2015, not spring 2016.

Moving quickly and decisively, Bush lined up some key fundraisers, presumably one factor spurring Romney’s reassessment.

He also subtly tempered some policy views, coupling continued opposition to gay marriage with a statement of respect for married gays and laws legalizing their ties, and expressing a more flexible immigration stance than at times in his harder-line past. Notably, he decided to bypass the Jan. 24 Iowa Freedom Summit sponsored by Rep. Steve King, the arch-conservative congressman known for his colorful language opposing immigration reform.

Sending out signals of principle over politics and pointedly avoiding other failed Romney stances may explain the former Massachusetts governor’s launch of what seems initially a challenge to Bush.

Meanwhile, Christie took more of a 2012-like Romney approach, and contrasted himself with Bush, by deciding to attend King’s summit, along with Sarah Palin and the GOP’s more-conservative hopefuls, not to mention an audience of Iowa conservatives unlikely to be Christie backers in next February’s caucuses.

His most publicized recent appearance was in that bizarre scene showing him hugging an equally exuberant Jerry Jones as the Dallas Cowboy owner’s guest at a National Football League playoff game. Along with the oddity of a governor from a state filled with fans of three NFL teams embracing the rival Cowboys, the incident produced the kind of story Christie doesn’t need, questioning his ethics in facilitating Jones’ business relationship with the New York Port Authority, which Christie helps run.

On Tuesday, Christie returned briefly to his day job for his State of the State speech. But it underscored his problems at home, notably budget woes and declining popularity.

Much that transpires in January 2015 may prove quickly forgotten. But inevitably some seemingly insignificant events will influence these mini-battles now defining the GOP race.

Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News.

©2015 The Dallas Morning News

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