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The 7 GOP Long Shots Who Still Have a Chance

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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Is it a three-candidate race for the Republican nomination?

I don’t quite think so -- yet. Yes, Jeb Bush, Scott Walker or Marco Rubio will probably be the party's 2016 nominee, but none has had enough success in the "invisible primary" -- the period we're in now -- to become a clear front-runner or at least push some marginal candidates to fold up their tents.

Since Mitt Romney dropped out more than 10 weeks ago, no one else has followed him. That tells us something important: Republican party actors aren't deciding yet. The Boston Globe’s James Pindell has been tracking endorsements in New Hamsphire, for example, and finds that 89 of 107 important Republican players in the state are still neutral. Even though it may seem early, strong nomination candidates draw endorsements by this point of the cycle, not just positive buzz.  

So who besides the top three has a long but realistic shot? I'm going to put Ted Cruz and Rand Paul aside, because no one similar to them has ever come close to a nomination in the modern era. 

But seven other candidates could take real advantage of a surge of positive publicity -- something that could happen to any candidate at any time (just ask Herman Cain). Here’s a rundown in more or less the order of their chances:

John Kasich, the governor of Ohio, is well-positioned if pragmatic Republicans start worrying about Bush's family name and Walker’s very conservative reputation. Kasich won re-election in a landslide last year, and he has the governing experience that could reassure Republicans who worry about a stature gap between their nominee and Hillary Clinton. If he was suddenly at the top of the primary polls, he would look formidable as a candidate who, like Walker and Rubio, has a chance to appeal to both conservatives and moderates.

Mike Huckabee’s problem is the hostility from party actors outside of his core supporters. But if he can repeat his 2008 success in the Iowa caucuses, rally all social conservatives to his side, and adjust his positions enough that Republican-aligned economic interests don’t object to him, it isn't hard to see hope for him.

Governor Mike Pence of Indiana doesn’t appear to be running. But despite backing down in the showdown over the Indiana religious-freedom law, he is as well-positioned as ever to unite various conservative factions. And conservatives run the Republican Party. 

Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana has seemed to have lost his way, and with the others below he belongs to a third tier, solidly behind Kasich, Huckabee and Pence. But a positive surge would bring new attention to his conservative policy-making credentials. Jindal has been running for 2016 as long as anyone has, and has presumably built some good relationships with people who, up until now at least, haven't seen a point in supporting him. If he suddenly zoomed to the top of the polls, would that change? Maybe.

Rick Perry would need a lot of things to go right for him, beginning with a resolution of the indictment he is facing. But a blast of support would suddenly transform him into a comeback candidate.  

Rick Santorum? He’s Huckabee without the populist touch, but if Huckabee drops out soon he would have similar prospects. (And his chances would improve even more if Cruz doesn’t make it to Iowa. The Texas senator can't win the nomination but he could dilute Santorum's potential there.)

Chris Christie is the last and least likely long shot. Republicans don’t like him now, but if that changed rapidly – and no one is better at creating political drama than the New Jersey governor -- the same party actors who were interested in him in 2013 would take a second look.

Yes,  the case against each of these candidates, even if he benefits from something that produces a sudden polling spike, is stronger than the case for any of them. Overall, however, I’m not prepared to say the top tier has the nomination locked up. After all, it's hard to see what's going on behind closed doors in the "invisible" primary.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net