The battle to win the Republican presidential nomination in 2016 is in full swing, even before the 2014 midterm elections have begun,. Potential candidates Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas), and Governor Chris Christie (R-N.J.), have been traveling to Iowa and sparring publicly in the press over issues ranging from immigration to the National Security Agency.
The importance of Iowa cannot be overstated in the GOP primary sweepstakes. In 2012, the Iowa caucus deep-sixed Governor Tim Pawlenty’s campaign, basically killed Governor Rick Perry’s (R-Texas) campaign, and launched Senator Rick Santorum’s (R-Pa.) surprising bid that netted him second place overall in the primaries. As a result, the flattering of the state’s 600,000 registered Republicans has begun very early as candidates seek to make good first impressions and in some cases, already begin to aggressively defend their record.
So far, the results are incredibly promising for Sen. Paul, who has successfully cast himself not only as a conservative fighting against amnesty for illegals against Sen. Rubio, but as a principled libertarian who has doubled down with his attacks on the NSA and Gov. Christie. Pure libertarians almost carried the state for his father, Representative Ron Paul, in 2012, and Sen. Paul has to be confident he can pull votes away from Sen. Rubio and overcome Gov. Christie. In fact, the first caucus Iowa and the following first primary in New Hampshire are very promising for Sen. Paul, as in Iowa he can cast himself as a conservative and maintain the votes of his father’s highly motivated voters, and in New Hampshire, his libertarian beliefs will play well with the libertarian-minded voters and allow a direct contrast with his main rival over there, Gov. Christie.
In this early period, the main takeaway from the candidates' visits is that Sen. Rubio has serious work to do. While the latest polling has him in second place, his favorables are dropping, and caucus voters are not likely to forget his promotion of the Senate's current immigration-reform bill, which many conservative voters believe amounts to amnesty for illegal immigrants. Rubio's main problem is that he does not have any chance of winning in New Hampshire, making Iowa incredibly important for his chances. If he loses both Iowa and New Hampshire, he probably will not win South Carolina either, and have to focus all his hopes on Florida, a strategy that did not work very well for Rudy Giuliani back in 2008. In addition, Sen. Cruz, if he decides to run, takes up many of the same voters that Rubio is aiming for and is also Hispanic. Right now, he is focusing on social issues and attempting to appeal to social conservatives, and is hoping that the climate on immigration will change by 2015. If Rand Paul sweeps Iowa and New Hampshire, however, Cruz could easily find himself the consensus establishment candidate who will pick up the "Anybody But Paul" vote. .
After Chris Christie is finished dismantling Barbara Buono thoroughly in this fall's New Jersey governor’s election, he can take his place as the front-runner in the presidential race. He is currently leading in polls in Iowa and New Hampshire and is one of the most popular politicians in the country. He will try and put the nomination to rest by following the Mitt Romney path to the nomination: Stay on message, emphasize electability, and try and sweep Iowa and New Hampshire to make his nomination appear as a fait accompli.
The presidential race has already started and for some candidates, these next few months are going to be vital in determining how the Iowan electorate will view them. Candidates like Marco Rubio will need to move quickly to define themselves and position themselves accordingly because Rand Paul and Chris Christie have done the best job of that so far. However, the race has just begun — and the 2014 midterms may upend the status of the presidential race in a way that no one was expecting.