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It's Still Early, But GOP Hopefuls Test The Waters For 2016

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During the annual Conservative Political Action Conference that begins Thursday, a slew of men who appear to want to try their hand at leading the GOP back to the White House in 2016 will be speaking, though not every potential presidential candidate was invited.

Yes, it's four years away, but that hasn't stopped Republican hopefuls from testing the waters. There are already polls — for whatever they're worth — of potential GOP candidates.

One name that's usually at the top of the list, says political analyst Stu Rothenberg, is the popular Republican governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie.

"Christie has gotten wonderful general election ink over the last six months," Rothenberg says. "He has carved out a niche for himself as somebody who's a straight-talker, not the photogenic, artificial, phony politician. ... And he's benefited in his overall profile from a positive relationship with the president, and his willingness to take on his own party."

Having said that, Rothenberg adds, those are exactly the attributes that will hurt Christie with Republican primary voters if he seeks the nomination.

Case in point: Christie was explicitly not invited to speak at CPAC.

Christie is asked about running all the time, and he has adopted a "What? Are you nuts?" response.

"I think anybody who tries to plan in politics that far in advance is crazy," he has said.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal takes the same approach.

"Anybody on the Republican side even thinking or talking about running for president in 2016, I've said, needs to get their head examined," he has said.

The Indian-American governor is widely considered to be mulling a run — and he has joked about the unlikely chance that "a skinny guy with a dark complexion and a funny name" could become president.

But not every Republican thinking about 2016 is so coy. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, a libertarian Republican, shot to prominence last week with an old-fashioned, 13-hour live filibuster against the administration's killer drone program.

"In order to grow and win national elections again, we're going to have to have somebody a little bit different than we've had in the past," he has said. "Someone who has a little bit more of a libertarian, Republican approach, I think, would have a better chance with independents and moderates."

Rothenberg says Paul has established himself as a force to contend with inside the GOP.

"I think Rand Paul is the leader of the Tea Party wing of the party because he can get people to vote. He can also get them to turn out in caucuses," Rothenberg says.

There is one Republican whom many in the party talk about as "the adult in the room," the natural front-runner if he were to get in the race — and that is former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the son and brother of presidents.

He will give the dinner address Friday at CPAC, and he was on every Sunday talk show last weekend promoting his new book on immigration. He stuck to this standard formula when asked about his plans: "Well, I'm not saying yes. I'm just not saying no."

Bush has a ready financial base in his home state, and Florida is the single most important swing state for Republicans. He has impeccable conservative credentials, and he speaks fluent Spanish. Yet one potential rival, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, notes what could be Bush's biggest obstacle — the political baggage of his last name.

"If you took your finger and covered his last name and just talked about Jeb, there'd be a lot of us who would have been talking about him running for president a lot sooner," Walker said.

Then there's Florida Sen. Marco Rubio — a protege of Jeb Bush who recently appeared on Time magazine's cover with the headline: "The Republican Savior." But it's hard to see how he'd run if Bush decides to get in.

Some faces from 2012 are likely to return — such as Texas Gov. Rick Perry, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan and Rick Santorum, the Republican runner-up in 2012. And there's Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, who is — right now — the only potential candidate with an attack ad running against him in Iowa already.

"Sometime soon, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell may be in Iowa to test the waters for 2016," the ad says. "But don't be fooled. As a candidate, McDonnell promised Virginians he would never raise taxes. But as governor, McDonnell pushed the largest tax increase in Virginia history."

McDonnell was also not invited to speak at CPAC. But the list of speakers does include the brand-new Tea Party favorite from Texas, freshman Sen. Ted Cruz.

The presidential contest in 2016 is an open race, with no incumbent running and no Republican in the White House to defend, so it may be the best time since 2000 for a new face of the party to emerge — and the best chance there will be until after 2020.

That's why a whole generation of Republican candidates can be expected to try their luck this time around.

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