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Can the GOP win back the White House?

So far, the 2016 Republican presidential primary is a complete puzzle to me.

With as many as a dozen candidates likely to run, clearly top Republicans believe the GOP will recapture the White House next November. But first, the party must pick its nominee, and that choice will signal what type of Republican that primary voters believe can help put the GOP's recent presidential struggles behind them.

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Texas Sen. Ted Cruz believes Republicans lost twice to both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama because the party's nominees in those elections — in order, George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole, John McCain and Mitt Romney — weren't "true" conservatives like, well, like himself. Even if his message is self-serving, millions of conservative voters subscribe to Mr. Cruz's view.

If he is correct, or at least persuasive on this point, Republicans should choose from a subgroup that, along with Mr. Cruz, includes former Johns Hopkins brain surgeon Ben Carson, former Arkansas governor and TV host Mike Huckabee, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who is set to announce Wednesday that he will again seek the nomination.

If past is prologue and the GOP's "next in line" tradition holds, among this quintet Mr. Santorum and Mr. Huckabee hold the key advantage of having run before, even though both came up a bit short: the former to Mr. Romney in 2012 and the latter to Mr. McCain in 2008. (During the past four decades only one candidate, George W. Bush in 2000, won the GOP nomination in his first attempt, a pattern that either dooms his younger brother's 2016 candidacy or means the rules don't apply to the Bush boys.)

Yet somehow I cannot see either Governor Huckabee or Senator Santorum making his way to the podium in Cleveland next summer to accept the GOP nomination. Despite operating on shoestring budgets, they did surprisingly well in their previous bids; and maybe in a crowded 2016 field, the ability to motivate grassroots followers will trump the capacity for shaking down rich donors for campaign cash.

However, each candidate's biggest obstacle is one another: They're competing for the same block of religious conservative voters. If Mr. Carson, Senator Cruz and Ms. Fiorina also carve out their small corners of the conservative base, it will be very hard for either Governor Huckabee or Senator Santorum to consolidate the party's frustrated but fractious right wing.

That's a shame, because they were the only two Republican contenders during the past two cycles who offered something resembling a populist economic message. They at least acknowledged that America's middle class is in trouble, that poverty and rising inequality are real problems and that government policies that helped create these disparities can also be used to reverse them. Sadly, most other Republicans continue to peddle the tried and untrue idea that tax cuts and smaller government are the panacea for everything that ails America.

Conservatives may not want to hear it, but the crowded right side of the GOP field again opens a path for a self-styled moderate like Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio or New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to run up the middle and capture the nomination. The first two hold the promise of delivering the Sunshine State's 29 crucial electoral votes, and Mr. Christie might be able to put states in the solidly blue Northeast like his own New Jersey into play. And remember: The votes of moderate Republicans in blue states count toward the nomination, too.

An upgraded electoral version of his father — younger, sharper, a senator rather than a House member, and a libertarian without the Libertarian Party history — Rand Paul is the GOP's 2016 wild card. He won't be the nominee, but Senator Paul could exert unusual influence over who wins.

If Governors Bush or Christie, or Senators Paul or Rubio, do win the nomination, would conservative Republicans revolt?

I doubt it. Despite Senator Cruz's hang-wringing, Republicans fear having Democrats control the White House longer than eight years for the first time since the days of Harry Truman. Above all else, that fear will be the animating feature of the 2016 GOP primary.

Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC; his most recent book is "The Stronghold: How Republicans Captured Congress but Surrendered the White House." His column appears every other Wednesday. His email is schaller67@gmail.com. Twitter: @schaller67.

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