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By David Lightman, McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — The crowded contest for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination is emerging as a three-man race in its early stages.

Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and Scott Walker have emerged as early leaders. “They have the best ability to unite the various factions of the Republican Party,” said Republican pollster Whit Ayres.

Rand Paul is close behind, but it’s uncertain whether he can grow much beyond the support he inherits from his father, former Rep. Ron Paul of Texas. In 2012, Ron Paul got 21.5 percent of the Iowa caucus vote and 22.9 percent of the New Hampshire primary vote.

So far, said Ayres, “Rand Paul has yet to show he can break out.”

Early momentum matters. Big donors and big names are eager to pick winners, figuring that the sooner they commit, the more influence they’ll have. Three factors are crucial in determining who’s up or down: money, staff and buzz.

Bush, the former Florida governor, is reportedly amassing a daunting campaign treasury, perhaps topping $100 million by this summer. Bush campaigned in South Carolina this week.

“Bush has the name, and that gets him benefits,” noted Tyler De Haan, chairman of the Dallas County (Iowa) Republican Party.

Early money doesn’t guarantee victory, but it’s a leading indicator. By June 30 of 1999 and 2011, George W. Bush and Mitt Romney, respectively, were well ahead in the money chase. Each won the nomination the following year. An exception: By mid-2007, John McCain’s total trailed Romney and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, but McCain went on to win the nomination.

Walker, the Wisconsin governor, has gained notice with his hires. While big names are expected to join better-connected candidates such as Bush, insiders take note when they go to someone such as the lesser-known Walker.

Rick Wiley, a former Republican National Committee political director, has signed on as a top aide. Kirsten Kukowski left her job as RNC national press secretary to become communications director for Walker’s political committee. Ed Goeas, president of the Tarrance Group, is a senior adviser.

Walker also gained momentum with his January speech to the Iowa Freedom Summit, an all-day showcase of possible candidates before hundreds of activists. Walker was the day’s star, explaining how he could streamline the federal government the way he tightened Wisconsin’s bureaucracy.

Donors and analysts see Walker, who also campaigned this week in South Carolina, as having broad appeal.

That’s gained importance in a campaign Republicans see as winnable. A McClatchy-Marist poll this month found that 39 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents thought it was more important to nominate someone who can win, up from December’s 33 percent.

A sign of the ability to win? Walker topped all other major Republicans when matched against Democrat Hillary Clinton.

Rubio, a U.S. senator from Florida, has generated quiet but ample buzz. It began growing last year in Iowa, where he was an early supporter of Joni Ernst for the Senate. She stunned the political world with an easy primary win and in November won big over Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley.

In January, Rubio emerged as the favorite of a donor retreat hosted by the billionaire Koch brothers. He won an informal straw poll and was praised for his understanding of foreign policy.

Rubio also intrigues Republicans because he’s both Latino and young. Rubio, who turns 44 in May, would be the first Republican presidential nominee under 50 since Richard Nixon in 1960. (So would Walker, who was born in November 1967.)

“Rubio is an exciting candidate. He’s young and is showing a lot of appeal,” said Wayne MacDonald, former New Hampshire Republican chairman.

Being in the top tier also brings risks. Scrutiny becomes relentless. One of Walker’s marquee hires, veteran Republican strategist Liz Mair, resigned this week after one day on job when controversy erupted over her tweets that criticized Iowa.

Rubio’s onetime willingness to create a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants is getting new attention, and Bush’s Florida record is still being closely examined by party insiders.

Much of who’s ahead and who’s not at this stage “is based on who’s known and who’s not known,” said Fergus Cullen, another former New Hampshire Republican chairman. Cullen hosted a reception at his home for Bush last week.

What’s lacking in the top tier is a hardcore conservative or Tea Party favorite.

Tea party loyalists are sympathetic to Walker, for example, but still have some doubts. At a Tea Party Patriots telephone town hall meeting this week, some questioned whether he has shifted his position on government help for ethanol over the years.

Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor, is popular in Iowa, but memories are fresh of how his support all but evaporated after winning the 2008 caucus. Rick Santorum did well early in 2012, but the former Pennsylvania senator lacked money and wider appeal once the campaign moved to bigger states.

Others raise serious questions, said Jane Aitken, coordinator for the New Hampshire Tea Party Coalition.

Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) is too eager to use military force, Aitken said, and “most Tea Party supporters are anti-interventionist.”

Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson attracts a passionate following but is unproven in the political arena. Former Texas Governor Rick Perry and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal have stirred little support, finishing 11th and 12th, respectively, in the Feb. 28 Conservative Political Action Conference straw poll. And few take businessman Donald Trump’s bid seriously.

That leaves the top tier, at least for now. “Remember,” said Cullen, “last time almost everybody seemed to have a time in the sun.”

Former Governor Jeb Bush of Florida speaking at the 2015 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland. (Gage Skidmore/Flickr)


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