GOP presidential race wide open, no matter what you're hearing


Talking about the 2016 presidential race in 2014 is somewhat ridiculous given how much can change over the next year and a half before the race really begins. But what's more absurd is talking about a "front-runner" in the Republican field. Because there isn't one. No matter what anyone tells you.

Hillary Clinton will dominate the Democratic side if she chooses to run (which she almost certainly will). But even she could face a significant challenge from the left or perhaps even from Vice President Joe Biden.

Karen Bleier | AFP | Getty Images

But the race is totally wide-open on the Republican side. Some people once called New Jersey Governor Chris Christie the front-runner because he won a huge re-election victory in a generally blue state.

But even before Bridgegate, Christie faced significant questions about his ability to play outside the Northeast and catch fire in early primary and caucus states. Even many of Christie's biggest supporters on Wall Street remained unconvinced he was the best bet to win back the White House for the GOP. The front-runner talk was extremely premature.

And now many people call Christie's prospects dead given the Bridgegate scandal. Wrong again.

Christie took a hit from the George Washington Bridge lane closure imbroglio but so far it has been far from fatal. A recent national poll showed Clinton beating Christie 55 percent to 39 percent in a hypothetical general election matchup. Prior to the scandal, the two were in a statistical dead heat. So forget Christie, right?

Not so fast.

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The presidential election is not a national vote. It's 50 state-by-state contests with a handful of closely fought battlegrounds making the difference. In at least one of those battlegrounds, the key state of Virginia, Christie and Clinton remain locked in a dead heat.

Indeed one could argue that if nothing more comes to light linking Christie directly to the decision to close the lanes, he could emerge from the scandal battle-tested and ready for a resurgence. There is plenty of time.

Then there's the matter of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a favorite of many on Wall Street who strongly backed Mitt Romney's 2012 bid. There is a strain of thought among some in the GOP that Bush, should he run, would waltz to the nomination and create another "Clinton-Bush" race echoing the 1992 campaign.

One GOP donor went so far as to tell The Washington Post: "If Jeb Bush is in the race, he clears the field. … You would have someone who has the talent that is equal to Mitt. The natural inclination for Mitt supporters would be to gravitate toward Jeb Bush because he's a candidate that can win a national race."

Think for a moment about the absurdity of that statement.

First off, there is no way Bush "clears the field." He would certainly face conservative and/or populist challengers such as Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and who knows who else. And while Wall Street loves Jeb, they do not believe that Romney, whom they also loved, had all that much "talent."

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If Romney did have that talent, the thinking goes, he would be president right now instead of making huge gaffes like the "47 percent" comment and losing to a modestly popular incumbent presiding over a crummy economy.

That's where the fear comes in about rallying around a candidate too soon. Many in the GOP would want to see Bush handle a serious primary race before making any final commitment to a candidate.

Want to know just how wide open the GOP field really is? That poll showing Clinton over Christie in a national race found that the GOP leader is, wait for it, Mike Huckabee, with 14 percent support.

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There is no way on Earth if Huckabee runs he will get the Republican nomination. The party desperately wants a candidate who can win a national race by appealing to swing voters in Ohio, Florida, Virginia and elsewhere and Huckabee is not that candidate.

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So who could it be? Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida is making a concerted effort to re-establish his conservative credentials after his support for comprehensive immigration reform turned into a fiasco last year.

Most insiders say Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., would have a solid shot if he decides he wants to run. Forget the baggage from 2012, these people say. Ryan didn't lose the race for Romney. And he is about as substantive as it gets from a policy perspective and does not scare moderates. His crafting of the recent budget agreement might be problematic in the primaries but it's hardly fatal and would help in a general election.

A raft of GOP governors including Wisconsin's Scott Walker and even Rick Perry of Texas remain possibilities to make noise in the 2016 field. Walker is often mentioned as an intriguing possibility in big money circles given his success taking on unions in Wisconsin.

The bottom line is you should be wary of anyone who talks about a "front-runner" on the GOP side for 2016. Because the only thing we really know is that we don't know much of anything.

—By Ben White. White is POLITICO's chief economic correspondent and a CNBC contributor. He also authors the daily tip sheet POLITICO Morning Money [politico.com/morningmoney]. Follow him on Twitter @morningmoneyben.