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Welcome to 2015, where the race to succeed President Barack Obama is already well underway and will only pick up speed as the year progresses. Washington will still provide plenty of political drama—and possibly even some economically significant legislation. (More on that later in the week.)
But much of the attention this year will shift to the presidential nominating contests, mainly but not exclusively on the Republican side. And as the new year dawns, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush is clearly the front-runner for the Republican nomination. And if Bush winds up as the GOP choice, he would almost certainly face Hillary Clinton in the general election.
But a lot can happen between now and then, and Bush will face a massively crowded field on the Republican side. Still, he begins with large inherent advantages. Given his name identification and general popularity, Bush is already near or at the top of polls of primary voters in key states such as New Hampshire.
He trails somewhat in Iowa, home to many deeply conservative evangelical voters skeptical of his views on immigration and education. But Bush could easily overcome a middle-of-the-pack finish in Iowa with heavy spending in states where he is expected to fair better, including New Hampshire and South Carolina.
The Bush calculus would focus on emerging as the consensus establishment choice over New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and possibly governors Scott Walker of Wisconsin and John Kasich of Ohio, among others.
Bush would then have to take down whoever emerges from Iowa and other early states as the top movement conservative, a group that will include Sens. Rand Paul and Ted Cruz along with former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and possibly others. There could be three or more Republicans still standing after Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina given fissures between social conservatives and more libertarian-leaning Republicans like Paul.
Bush will look to slam the door on all of them in early March when a pile of states, including the governor's native Florida, vote on Super Tuesday.
To get there, Bush will have to sell early voters on his policies on immigration and education, which could prove challenging. But he will have more than enough money—Bush is in Greenwich, Connecticut, this week raising cash for his newly launched super PAC—to saturate the early state airwaves and then keep rolling when the race goes national.
Bush will also bank on the strong desire at the top of the GOP to avoid a long, bruising primary process that would badly damage the party's standard bearer while Clinton is presumably waltzing to the Democratic nomination.
And there is no longer much doubt that Bush is getting in the race. He spent the holiday break winding down all his corporate and nonprofit ties. He is also preparing to exit the multiple investment funds he set up over the last several years. He is preparing to release an e-book that will presumably contain the general themes of his campaign. Bush could still have a major change of heart and decide not to get in, but that seems increasingly unlikely.
Should he make it through the primaries, Bush would likely face off again Hillary Clinton. Clinton won't necessarily have the coronation many expect, given that Iowa activists are already actively pining for a challenger. But outside of Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, there is no obvious candidate on the left who could mount a credible challenge to Clinton. Warren still says she is not running and she probably won't. But if she does, she could compete with and even beat Clinton in Iowa. But chances are she could not roll up further victories. She could, however, force Clinton left on economic policy in ways that could make the general election tougher for the former secretary of state and New York senator.
While it is true that Clinton was also viewed as inevitable in 2008, it is also true that there is no Barack Obama waiting in the political wings to take her down.
So barring a major surprise, the 2016 race will pit Clinton against whoever emerges from a crowded GOP field. At the beginning of 2015, that looks like it could be John Ellis "Jeb" Bush. But the road from here to the GOP convention balloon drop in the summer of 2016 is a long and perilous one that promises many surprises that could make early prognostications (such as this one) look foolish in retrospect.
—Ben 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 .