WASHINGTON - If you want to wager on who the 2016 Republican nominee will be and have only one choice, the best bet may be former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. However, the odds overwhelmingly suggest the former governor won't win the nomination - assuming he even runs. This underscores, more than any other time in memory, how unformed the contest for the Republican nomination is. "It's absolutely wide-open," said Tom Davis, a former Virginia congressman who also served as head of the National Republican Campaign Committee. Intervening events and the shape of the field will change the contest. As Davis argues, there now are two broad categories of contenders: Establishment figures, such as Bush and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, though some believe Christie has fallen too far to be in this category, and outsiders, such as Sens. Rand Paul and Ted Cruz.
If one side has a surplus of candidates - the outsiders, for instance - and the other has more refined list, it would tilt the race to an establishment candidate. That's what facilitated Mitt Romney's nomination in 2012. The outsiders, however, are much more politically seasoned this time than they were in 2012 when, at one point, a former pizza executive rose to the top of the pack. The lack of any clear consensus in the party emerges after talking to Davis and several other political wise men - none of them have committed to any of the potential 2016 candidates.
Jeb Bush (4 to 1): The son and brother of former presidents, Bush inherits a national political and fund-raising network. He is a policy heavyweight who could make the case to a victory-hungry party that he'd be a strong general-election candidate and best able to govern. The downsides are more pronounced. Bush is rusty, having not been on a ballot in 12 years. He has stumbled on some issues, including immigration reform - an issue he cares a lot about - and he is now returning to his pro-reform instincts.
Immigration and several other issues, as well as the Bush brand, are anathema to many grassroots conservatives. Does he have enough fire in his belly for the contest? Is his family on board? And how would voters react to a battle of the legacies - Bush vs. Hillary Clinton?
Scott Walker (6 to 1): The Wisconsin governor is one of the few early hopefuls acceptable to both the establishment and business-friendly elements of the party and to movement conservatives, who are attracted by his successful efforts against labor unions in a Democratic-leaning state. He's being compared to another Midwestern governor from a blue state, Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, who flamed out last time. Yet Walker, having headed off an expensive recall, has proved he can raise money.But he doesn't excite either side of the party: He's charisma-challenged. And he could face a difficult re-election this November.
Mike Huckabee (7 to 1): More than anyone, this former preacher energizes the social right. The first test will be the Iowa caucuses, which he won in 2008. More than half of GOP Iowa caucus-goers in 2012 described themselves as born-again or evangelical Christians; in New Hampshire, which comes next, they make up a much lower share. The ex-Arkansas governor and current TV talk-show host is the most glib aspirant. But the party's supply-siders are deeply suspicious of his populist leanings and his moment may have been in 2012, which he passed up in order to make money.
Rand Paul (8 to 1): It's hard to see the Republicans nominating the libertarian maverick from Kentucky. The foreign-policy establishment is horrified by Paul's non-interventionist views and his positions on civil liberties aren't popular with many primary voters. Still, building on his father's presidential runs, Paul has a national network of committed voters. He should be able to enlarge the Republican primary universe and stay in the race for the long haul.
Chris Christie and Marco Rubio (10 to 1): Only a year ago, the New Jersey governor and Florida senator were the co-favorites for the nomination. Separately, they were nearly coronated by national magazines. The British betting service oddschecker.com still rates them as the leaders - both are at around 5 to 1. Those odds don't reflect the down-slide both are experiencing.
Rubio has never recovered from supporting immigration reform legislation the Senate passed last year. And if Bush runs, he may not even enter the race. Christie was the darling of the party's heavy-hitters on Wall Street. But the scandal over the George Washington Bridge lane closures has infected his administration.
Ted Cruz (12 to 1): The party doesn't turn first-term senators into presidents, and Cruz has alienated many top Republicans in Washington. His moves to the right raise doubts about his general-election viability. Yet he probably is the smartest contender and has an ability to wow conservative audiences and dominate the stage at debates and joint appearances.
Paul Ryan (15 to 1): On paper, the House Budget Committee Chairman and 2012 vice-presidential candidate is impressive: He's well versed in policy, attractive, articulate, with strong economic bona-fides and is working to fashion a credible economic opportunity agenda. But he can't become the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, a longtime dream, and then run for president. Even his allies can't see him dedicating the time required in 2015 to run in Iowa and New Hampshire.
Rick Perry (20 to 1): There are second acts in presidential politics - Ronald Reagan, Bob Dole, possibly Hillary Clinton - and the three-term Texas governor will try to bounce back from his dreadful run in 2012. Perry is a terrific retail politician. Still, the image of Perry as the bumbling candidate is etched deeply in the political psyche.
Bobby Jindal (30 to 1): The Louisiana governor has his sights on the presidency and is developing policy alternatives on big issues such as health care. But his record as governor is fairly flimsy. Moreover, Jindal, who is Indian-American, is unpopular in his home state and lost his race for governor in 2003 before being elected in 2007.
Dark Horse (40 to 1): The last dark horse to win the nomination was Wendell Willkie in 1940; so think Indiana: Gov. Mike Pence could be a candidate. Then there's former Sen. Rick Santorum, who won the Iowa caucuses in 2012 against an exceptionally weak field. Ohio Gov. John Kasich should be on the list, but his acceptance of Medicaid expansion hurts him in the primaries.
In this island of uncertainty, there is only one sure bet: The nominee won't be Donald Trump.
Albert R. Hunt is a columnist for Bloomberg View.
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