New "Crystal Ball" frontrunner for GOP nomination: Scott Walker?

Worth blogging just because it’s the first time I’ve seen a major elections analyst name Walker as the man to beat. I agree with the basic outline: There’ll be a centrist champion, a right-wing champion, and then a compromise candidate who can draw from both camps. Sabato thinks that’s Christie, Rand Paul, and Walker, respectively. I think it’s likelier to be Christie, Cruz, and Rubio, with Rand Paul an X factor fueled by libertarians, but oh well.

Scott Walker continues to hold the top spot on our list because we believe that if he decided to run, he could potentially appeal to both the party’s defense hawks and its fiscal conservatives. In the event of a Paul-Christie duel (or a battle among others) for the soul of the Republican Party, Walker could present himself as a consensus choice whose nomination would avert a GOP identity crisis. Yes, we realize that Walker might end up being a disappointing national candidate — he very well might not have the swagger, fundraising chops, rhetorical ability and national base of support to make much of a bid — but in our view he continues to lead a wide-open field.

We’ve moved Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) down the list. His prominent role in the Senate’s immigration debate has done him some damage in early polling: There’s evidence that he has recently slipped in Iowa and New Hampshire, and that his national star has faded at least slightly amongst Republicans. This all could be some early, meaningless noise, but if one has to rank the GOP presidential contenders, he just doesn’t belong above Walker, Christie or Paul at this point. Bob Vander Plaats, an evangelical leader in Iowa, said that some Iowans he’s talked to believe 2020 might be a better opportunity for Rubio than 2016. Easy now — there’s many months to go before even 2016 comes into focus.

Sabato lists one of Walker’s potential key disadvantages as being too bland a la Tim Pawlenty. Really? The guy who broke the unions in Wisconsin and then humiliated big labor by winning his recall fight? He won’t have a blandness problem. His problem, I think, is fundraising. He’s a big name on the right but righties have other places to go with their donations, namely, Cruz and Paul. Meanwhile, he’ll probably lag behind Christie for establishment money. That’s one of the reasons I think Rubio has a leg up as the “compromise candidate” — he’s a bigger name, Beltway Republicans will be grateful to him for the amnesty push, and he has a key selling point as the country’s potential first Latino nominee to counter Hillary’s own historic nomination. Whether he is in fact more “electable” than Walker isn’t clear but I think he’ll be perceived that way by GOP voters. People have short memories; the immigration business will fade by 2015 provided that the core elements of the Gang of Eight bill don’t end up being passed by the House. If that happens and border enforcement under the new law starts to sputter and wheeze before the primaries, hoo boy.

But maybe I’m overestimating the importance of fundraising to Walker’s chances. The compromise candidate doesn’t need to win early; all he needs to do is be competitive and hang around until South Carolina, when voters will start to think strategically about whether they want the Iowa or New Hampshire winner as nominee. If Paul wins IA and Christie wins NH, there may be so much grousing from the two sides of the party about the other that they start to migrate towards the guy in the middle as the “Stop Paul/Christie” option. That’s what might have happened to Pawlenty if he hadn’t flamed out early. Can Walker keep himself viable for a month or two by finishing in the top three in Iowa, next door to Wisconsin, with Paul, Cruz, Santorum, and Rubio all in the field? Hmmmm.