Let the Republican Hunger Games Begin

CPAC's role in thinning the Republican field.
Senator Ted Cruz takes center stage. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

The Conservative Political Action Conference opened this morning. That means high-profile speeches by potential presidential candidates: Senator Ted Cruz of Texas had the first slot; Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin spoke, too.

Should nomination-watchers pay attention? It's easy to overhype such rituals. In the past, the presidential nomination straw pollat the end of the conference has crowned Steve Forbes (1998), George Allen (2006) and Ron Paul (2010). So I wouldn't recommend putting too much stock in its predictive powers.

I wouldn't totally dismiss CPAC, however. Republicans are contending with a large field of candidates whose ideological and policy profiles are more or less identical, and who have conventional qualifications for the presidency. Yet none has any particularly strong claim to the nomination or even to the leadership of particular groups of Republicans. That's exactly the kind of environment in which intraparty buzz and personal campaigning should make a significant difference. Party actors will be choosing from a group that includes Ryan, Scott Walker, Chris Christie, Bobby Jindal, John Kasich, Mike Pence and several others, and there isn't much to help distinguish among them.

So far, candidates haven't had to do much to remain players. Now, we're getting very close to the stage where being a candidate becomes a lot more resource-consuming. And that means they'll need to assess whether they can amass the resources needed to continue, or whether it's time to drop out. A solid dose of positive attention at a high-visibility event (at least for Republicans) could help a potential candidate make the jump to the next level, and a negative review could be enough to push them in the other direction.

It's early, but not that early. Most nominations are wrapped up by Jan. 1 of the election year, and some are determined earlier. A year from now, only about half of today's dozen or more plausible nominees will be left. Six months later, there will probably be between one and five. This week's speeches won't determine which of those finalists captures the prize, but they're part of the process in which those finalists are selected.

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