GOP parts from tradition of candidates waiting their 'turn'

Things certainly have changed in the Republican Party. Gone are the times when patience was its own reward and loyal leading members would await their turn in the list of aspiring presidential candidates.

Of six declared candidates for 2016, three are freshman senators — Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Marco Rubio — and two are newcomers to national politics: Carly Fiorina and Ben Carson. Only former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee has been around the track before.


Once upon a time the notion of "my turn" ruled the GOP order in pursuit of the highest office. For nearly a half-century, prominent Republicans had to put their time in before they could expect to carry the party banner as presidential nominee.

This is the roll call since 1960: Vice President Richard Nixon; Sen. Barry Goldwater; Nixon again, twice: President Gerald Ford; two-time California Gov. Ronald Reagan, twice; Vice President George Bush, twice; Senate Republican Leader Bob Dole; Texas Governor George W. Bush, twice; veteran Sen. John McCain of Arizona; former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.


Not since 1952, when World War II hero Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower was plucked to lead the party to victory, has a true political neophyte or outsider been the GOP presidential nominee. If anyone might say it is "my turn" now, it would be former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, but only out of his family tie to two former presidents.

Instead, the early going has been marked by preliminary competition among lesser-known party conservatives bidding to be the darling of the right wing, or at least a comfortable partner to take to the prom. Most have had some allegiance or association with the tea party movement that continues an uphill struggle to gain leadership traction in a party in which moderation now seems increasingly out of fashion.

For all the collective strength this tea party affiliation might suggest, the multiple candidacies augur a split in voting power that could leave the party with a moderate, establishment nominee like Jeb Bush in the end. He might be the most obvious prospective beneficiary, if only as the son of George H.W. Bush, whose conservatism was always in doubt among the faithful, and as the brother of George W., who left office in bad odor for a multiplicity of failures.

Still, those Bush family shortcomings might well give advocates of the tea party and right-wing gospel a political opening to rise from a mere movement to a significant force in the party. But as of now there is little unity within the ranks behind any of the crowd of wannabes.

The distinct evangelical tinge to the crop, most notably displayed in Messrs. Cruz, Huckabee and Carson, can boost the chances of any of them. The same can be said of former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who rode his religious bona fides to a surprising, narrow victory in the 2012 Iowa caucuses. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, too, has been conspicuously vocal in God's corner.

As a result, the approaching winnowing-out process of pre-2016 campaigning and debates will feature a lively competition for identity as the tea party candidate going into the early Republican caucus and primary states.

Mr. Bush himself appears to be working to persuade party conservatives that he also is one of them, in the "severely conservative" style of the Mitt Romney of 2012. But the Bush family history weighs in as a questionable counter to the plea that he truly belongs.

Jeb's comment that he'd be willing to lose a primary or two to win the general election indicates he will buck the right-wing purists in the early going in order to present a more moderate posture to the voters in November 2016.


Of the tea party pack, the entry of Mr. Huckabee could scramble the field, and not only if this Baptist preacher seriously competes for the evangelical bloc he won in the 2008 Iowa caucuses. He now also has developed a strong rural populist pitch as a country orator somewhat more polished after a long stint as a Fox television commentator.

Nevertheless, the tea party movement has yet to produce a national champion of sufficient persuasive power or political clout to become the dominant force in today's GOP.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is