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GOP 2016 scorecard: Who’s in the lead?

Election day 2016 is still 18 months away but the primaries begin in just eight months and that's why the field of candidates vying for the wide open Republican presidential nomination is starting to get a little crowded. I should start with the disclaimer that, while I do vote, I don't publicly support candidates. But that doesn't mean I can't do a little handicapping of that GOP field at this moment.

I think it will come down to three key factors:

1. Anti-GOP establishment. The GOP candidates with the best chances of success will be independent of the too-compromising and lightly principled Republican congressional establishment.

2. Foreign policy. The GOP needs a candidate who projects American strength in the face of Islamist terror, Iran's nuclear ambitions, provocations from Russia's Vladimir Putin, and China's growing worldwide influence .

3. Anti-Clinton. The Republican candidate who provides the best responses and the best poll numbers against Hillary Clinton will be very attractive to a powerful chunk of GOP primary voters.

So, how are 10 names in the Republican presidential field doing on these three key factors? Here's a report card:


Jeb Bush

Jeb Bush
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Jeb Bush

Just about all the polls say the former Florida governor and presidential son and brother is the front runner for the GOP nomination. I know the as-yet-undeclared Bush has the most money raised, but I'm just not buying him as the best Republican candidate at all. He badly lacks the first ingredient calling for someone who stands by conservative principles no matter what the polls say. He's also so much a part of the GOP establishment that traditional Republican donors literally cannot wait to back him. On foreign policy no one considers Bush to be a novice, even though he's only held state-wide office. But his connection to his brother's unpopular foreign policies are a problem for him — even among GOP primary voters. Jeb's best attribute is that he seems to be polling a little better than most Republicans against Secretary Clinton. But that seems like more a result of name recognition than anything else.

Anti-GOP Establishment: F
Foreign Policy: B-
Anti-Clinton: B

GRADE: C-

Ted Cruz

Sen. Ted Cruz.
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Sen. Ted Cruz.

Senator Cruz certainly isn't known for compromise, and he's not a member of the GOP establishment that has so disappointed conservative voters. But the fact that he is a member of the faltering Republican Senate still hurts him. On the second test, Cruz says a lot of the things about foreign policy that GOP primary voters like to hear, but his lack of real experience is also a problem. Ted Cruz is probably Hillary Clinton's dream opponent — he's just the kind of sharp-tongued candidate that pushed moderate voters — especially women — into the Democrats' camp.

Anti-GOP Establishment: A-
Foreign Policy: B
Anti-Clinton: F

GRADE: C

Read MoreWhy Clinton and Cruz are wooing this sector

Rand Paul

Rand Paul
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Rand Paul

Senator Paul passes two of the three tests with flying colors, but fails the third so badly that he has an uphill battle ahead of him. Paul may be a senator, but he's as anti-establishment as you can be while still being a member of the Senate. His libertarian message resonates with younger conservatives and moderates like no other Republican and just about no other Democrat for that matter. That's the reason why he polls the best against Clinton, (even though he still trails her by about 10 points). But his still too-isolationist approach to foreign policy will hurt him every time ISIS launches another attack or Iran sponsors more instability in the Middle East. Paul's campaign has been trying to work on that image, especially by trying to build some bridges with the strong pro-Israel majority in the GOP voting base.

Anti-GOP Establishment: A+
Foreign Policy: F
Anti-Clinton: B+

GRADE: C+


Marco Rubio

Marco Rubio
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Marco Rubio

A little of the GOP Congressional establishment negativity touches Rubio, but not too much because he is also not a part of its leadership. His youth and Latino heritage further help distinguish him from the typical face of the Republican Party in a more effective way than the also Latino and just slightly older Ted Cruz. Rubio has made foreign policy issues his forte during his time in the Senate and his strong and early support of Israel will bolster his candidacy among evangelical voters who have a strong influence in the primaries. Rubio's poll numbers against Clinton aren't stellar right now, but unlike Cruz there's no reason to believe they can't improve.

THE LEADER: With no "F's" on his transcript right now, Rubio may be the GOP candidate with the most reasonable upside.

Anti-GOP Establishment: B+
Foreign Policy: A-
Anti-Clinton: C+

GRADE: B

Scott Walker

Scott Walker
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Scott Walker

Walker is a bluish state governor who successfully beat back the temptation to just go along with the same old blue-state traditions to stay safely in power. His independence from the Washington establishment may be more perception than reality, but that perception is pretty strong. Walker has mitigated his lack of foreign-policy experience with some fruitful foreign trips and strong conservative statements about Iran and Israel. His ability to topple Hillary Clinton is an unknown right now, but with three very tough election wins in just the last five years he can market himself as the most battle-tested Republican willing to take her on.

Anti-GOP Establishment: A
Foreign Policy: B-
Anti-Clinton: C+

GRADE: B


Mike Huckabee

Mike Huckabee
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Mike Huckabee

The former Arkansas governor and Fox News host is the evangelicals' favorite, which means he has a significant portion of GOP primary voters behind him. His lack of any connection to the congressional leadership and the big money Republican donors help make him a good anti-establishment candidate too. Other than his strong positions on Israel and the slaughter of Christians worldwide, his foreign policy credentials are thin. And he's almost as bad as Ted Cruz when it comes to being a candidate the Clinton campaign could crush.

Read MoreHuckabee officially throws his hat in the 2016 ring

Anti-GOP Establishment: A
Foreign Policy: C-
Anti-Clinton: F

GRADE: C+

Chris Christie

Gov. Chris Christie
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Gov. Chris Christie

Recent developments in his "Bridgegate" scandal leave me doubting he will ever get into the race, but even without that issue, Christie's presidential chances don't seem to pass muster in the three key categories. While being a blue-state governor who took on the unions should give him the same anti-establishment clout as Scott Walker, his term as the chief of the Republican Governors Association connects him very closely to the traditional GOP power base. Christie's foreign-policy credentials are weak, and unlike some of his fellow less-experienced Republican candidates, he hasn't even said all the right things either. Christie also does not poll well against Mrs. Clinton.

Anti-GOP Establishment: B-
Foreign Policy: C-
Anti-Clinton: D

GRADE: C-


Lindsey Graham

Lindsey Graham
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Lindsey Graham

Graham is about as close to the disappointing GOP congressional establishment as McConnell or Boehner. His strength is foreign policy, but he's another easy opponent for Hillary Clinton.

Anti-GOP Establishment: F
Foreign Policy: B+
Anti-Clinton: D-

GRADE: D+

Read MoreTeflon Hillary leads GOP rivals: NBC-WSJ poll

Ben Carson

Ben Carson
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Ben Carson

Being an African-American born into poverty and never having held elected office helps Dr. Ben Carson win the anti-establishment category. But he fails the foreign-policy section. And the Clinton campaign would be able to turn that anti-establishment strength into a weakness with easy-to-market questions about his inexperience. Carson might make a good vice presidential candidate, especially if an establishment Republican somehow finds a way to win the nomination.

Anti-GOP Establishment: A
Foreign Policy: F
Anti-Clinton: D

GRADE: C+


Carly Fiorina

Carly Fiorina
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Carly Fiorina

As a woman who has never held elected office, Fiorina has a decent claim to high marks on the anti-establishment front. But her rock solid connection to Corporate America dilutes that a bit and won't energize primary voters. She's a flat out fail on foreign policy and isn't as good an alternative to Secretary Clinton as some think.

Read More Carly Fiorina: 'I'm running for president'

Anti-GOP Establishment: B
Foreign Policy: F
Anti-Clinton: C

GRADE: C-

These 10 students may get a little more company in the coming weeks, but consider these the midterm grades for now. Looks like everyone needs improvement!

Commentary by Jake Novak, supervising producer of "Power Lunch." Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.

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