The 2016 Pre-Primaries Are Well Underway

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Ordinarily the jockeying for the White House begins slowly, with whispered conversations and closed-door meetings. The potential candidates circle each other quietly, and warily. The early commitments come slowly, and all parties know they are tentative, and mostly secret. That is how it always has been. That is how most political professionals thought it would be this time.

But in a campaign that will likely challenge every expectation, expectation has been the first casualty. Last week’s presidential-candidacy announcement by first-term Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas was the first public blast in what will now be a 19-month campaign.

But Mr. Cruz, a onetime Supreme Court clerk and a Tea Party favorite, merely formalized a campaign that has been conducted, in a subterranean way, for months. In fact, a set of vital pre-primary primaries have been going on for some time. Only now are they visible:

The Texas pre-primary

One of the reasons Mr. Cruz sent his followers a midnight tweet about his Liberty University presidential announcement was to gain a march on other contenders, especially Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, whose brassy record in Wisconsin and brassy rhetoric in Iowa thrust him into prominence and established him as the principal rival to former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida.

This was intolerable for the Cruz crew, which found itself gasping for political oxygen. His announcement last week — a rousing speech vowing to repeal Obamacare and abolish both the Internal Revenue Service and the Common Core educational guidelines, with references to the “formative love of Jesus Christ” and unequivocal support for Israel — gave him breathing room.

But Mr. Cruz is not the only Texan in this campaign. Besides Mr. Bush, born in Texas and a graduate of the state university in Austin, former Gov. Rick Perry is hungry for a second chance at presidential politics, and he’s already lined up a formidable array of financial backers. And on Monday he embarks on a five-city Texas tour that he expects will fill his coffers for the campaign to come.

The Florida pre-primary

The 1988 campaign had two presidential candidates from Delaware — but from different parties. The 2016 campaign has two states with two presidential candidates each, and the choice in Florida — Sen. Marco Rubio or Mr. Bush — may be even more agonizing than the one in Texas.

There’s real money in Florida, and no one remotely familiar with recent American history is unaware of the importance of Florida in presidential politics. “These two draw different types of Republicans and different types of minority voters,” says Daniel A. Smith, a University of Florida political scientist. “And in a multi-candidate field, the relative position of the others will have an effect.”

The bottom line: Both the Floridians will need Florida.

Mr. Rubio goes out of his way to say that his supporters are different from Mr. Bush’s, which is a deft way of playing the ideological, the ethnic and the generational cards all at once.

Mr. Bush is a baby boomer, Mr. Rubio a Gen X-er, born the year Mr. Bush graduated from Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass. Mr. Bush is an establishment figure with a grandfather who was a senator and a father and brother who were president, Mr. Rubio an insurgent and immigrants’ son. (The insurgency might be more important than the immigrant factor. There’s not much of a Hispanic vote in Republican primaries outside of the Miami area.)

The Florida pre-primary is a class-and-cash struggle. But it’s also a personal one. Both men know that Mr. Bush, who once helped catapult a West Miami city commissioner into prominence and then nudged him into his senate race, nurtured Mr. Rubio’s career, and now the younger man has reason to consider his mentor a menace to his career.

The Wisconsin pre-primary

There’s only one presidential candidate from Wisconsin, but critics of the state’s governor already are arguing there are two Scott Walkers. So the struggle here is over which Mr. Walker of Wisconsin is running for president in Iowa and New Hampshire.

On abortion, education, immigration and energy, Mr. Walker hasn’t so much switched his positions as modified them. He’s the political opposite of a crab, which moves from right to left. He’s shifting right. At this year’s Gridiron Dinner in Washington, Mr. Walker faced the issue squarely. Apparently, he said, citing David Axelrod’s new book, “President Obama always supported gay marriage and his position never changed. See, he didn’t believe in evolution either.”

Mr. Walker’s most recent mid-course correction occurred three weeks ago. In 2012, he told the Republican state convention he had “no interest in pursuing” the sort of right-to-work legislation he signed earlier this month at a unionized factory. In 2015, he said the measure “continues to put the power back in the hands of Wisconsin workers.”

The Massachusetts pre-primary

Well, not really. But the only drama on the Democratic side involves Sen. Elizabeth Warren, whom many liberals feel is an anti-Wall Street antidote to former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who at this time has no serious competitor for the party’s presidential nomination.

So far there’s just a self-appointed Warren commission. And it’s not the only one. Last week a Draft Biden 2016 effort began, touting its man as “an experienced statesman, coalition builder and productive public official.” Mr. Biden, one of the Delaware candidates of 1988, is unlikely to run in 2016. Ms. Warren has repeatedly said she’s not running.

Even so, The Boston Globe put on a full-court press last weekend, arguing that, unlike Ms. Clinton or any of the GOP contenders, the Massachusetts senator “has made closing the economic gaps in America her main political priority,” adding: “If she runs, it’ll ensure that those issues take their rightful place at the center of the national political debate.”

Ms. Clinton’s many gifts do not include flexibility and spontaneity, so it’s doubtful that this Warren surgette shaped the remarks she delivered, only a day later, at the liberal Center for American Progress. There she spoke of the economic divide, particularly in the cities, signaling that the gap between rich and poor will be a major theme of her campaign. Those tentative remarks, however, will not cool the ardor of the Warren partisans. They’re not ready for Hillary just yet. 

David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (

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