[I]nterviews with more than a dozen party strategists, elected officials and potential candidates a month out from the unofficial start of the 2016 election lay bare a stark reality: Despite the national party’s best efforts, the likelihood of a bloody primary process remains as strong as ever.

The sprawling, kaleidoscope-like field that’s forming is already prompting Republican presidential hopefuls to knock their likely rivals privately and, at times, publicly. The fact that several candidates’ prospects hinge in part on whether others run only exacerbates that dynamic. Ultimately, the large pack won’t be whittled for many months: Republicans have no idea who will end up running, and insiders don’t expect the field will gel significantly until at least the spring of next year…

At least 15 Republicans are weighing campaigns, with no clear front-runner. Contrast that with Clinton, who has solidified her Democratic support to a deeper extent than any candidate in recent memory…

The true fear that’s gripping some operatives: There will be no way to narrow the field anytime soon.

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Not one GOP sharpie I’ve talked to in the past six months has said with any confidence who their nominee will be, and most are either stumped or limp-throated when asked to venture a guess at the top tier. Pressed, they’ll typically cough up Chris Christie, Paul Ryan, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, and Mitt Romney. A portion of that bunch would likely not get in the race if Bush decides to run. None of them combines Bush’s fundraising capacity and his compelling case for general-election strength

While supporters of flashy candidates such as Paul and Rubio talk a good game about nomination muscle, national appeal, and anti-Clinton clout, Bush has walked the walk as the popular governor of electorally indispensable Florida and as a member of the most politically successful family in American history. Jeb (along with Romney) is likely the only contestant who could keep pace with the expected Clinton haul in excess of $1.5 billion. “The Republican donor base will fall in line” behind Bush, says one of the party’s best and most experienced fundraisers. “There is no competition.”

Despite a near-total lack of spadework in the early states and among activists and bundlers, Bush could line up a team of campaign staffers, policy experts, and finance mavens at a moment’s notice. More to the point, he doesn’t have much ground to make up. One long-time senior Republican official says of the other prospects, “None of them has done shit” to build an organization so far. “Bush will have the band put together in a day. He is the most prepared from a infrastructure point of view by light-years.” Unlike his competitors, Bush could lure donors off the fence in a hurry, without undergoing a hazing trial to test skill and stability. The train would fire up and chug away from the station at the git-go.

Moving to the Electoral College endgame and the essentials of demography and partisan affiliation, Bush’s strength is manifest. His long record attracting non-white voters, especially Hispanics, stands out.

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Besides the constant attention from Democrats, and the clear sense that Paul doesn’t always quite agree with the [establishment] candidates he stumps for, the campaigning has a big, obvious upside: It means a lot to Republicans. Should he run for president in 2016 — and all indications are that he will — the work he’s doing now could pay off when he needs the favor returned.

“People don’t forget stuff like this,” said one Republican strategist who has been critical of Paul in the past. “His quick willingness to get on board will pay dividends down the line.”

The strategist also pointed out that Paul’s work was in stark contrast to Sen. Ted Cruz, another likely presidential candidate, who has openly sparred with the NRSC despite holding the title of vice chair for the committee. Cruz has “antagonized” Republican leadership, the strategist said, for sharply criticizing the committee during the primary season…

“Sen. Paul’s enthusiasm not only resonates with core Republicans, but his message also appeals to younger voters who are fed up with Washington and want to shake things up,” Brad Dayspring, the spokesman, said.

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But in decisively proclaiming his values on [gay marriage], [Cruz] sets himself apart from potential opponents who have hedged on the issue. Connie Mackey, the president of the Family Research Council’s legislative PAC, told National Journal that her group, a harbinger of morality among social conservatives, stands behind Cruz’s rhetoric.

“The people in this country are looking for someone who is a bold leader, and who will state his case and defend it,” she said. “Ted Cruz and others that would speak up on it will gain the support of the people.”

Paul’s language on same-sex marriage hasn’t been nearly as fiery as Cruz’s; in fact, he’s said he thinks the GOP’s views will “evolve,” and that the party can have “people on both sides of the issue.” And while Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida said earlier this year he opposes gay marriage, he was also adamant that those views don’t make him “antigay,” and respects state legislatures right to legalize it if that’s what voters want.

If 2012 presidential candidates who ran on social conservativism, such as former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, join the race, Cruz’s uniqueness could disappear. But if they sit it out, Cruz’s outspokenness could help him stand out in a primary against such a backdrop. He may be counting on that.

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Bobby Jindal is working to show voters he’s more than a wooden wonk by loosening up on the campaign trail.

Now, with a new and improved, more relaxed demeanor, some conservatives are taking a second look at the Louisiana governor for 2016 after largely writing him off as a major contender for the White House.

Jindal surprised many last week when he gave a strong speech at the Values Voters Summit in Washington. The half-hour address drew both laughs and strong applause from the social conservatives gathered, and Jindal showed a dynamic style as he paced across the stage…

Those who have watched Jindal’s career since say his transition from the stilted speaker of 2009 to a more polished politician has come about as a natural product of time. Serving seven years as governor, as well as a stint as head of the Republican Governors Association, have given him plenty of time to hone the public part of his political persona.

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Allies of Ben Carson are actively making preparations behind the scenes for the neurosurgeon to enter the 2016 presidential race, with plans for a possible campaign headquarters in the suburbs outside Washington D.C., The Daily Caller has learned…

While Carson is waiting until after the midterm elections this year to make a decision, Giles is already laying the groundwork so a campaign operation can come together quickly if Carson decides to pull the trigger on a run…

He said Carson is also busy studying up on the issues, and developing a potential campaign platform.

“We’re working on drilling down on our various issues,” he said. “Working on accumulating real facts, so we’re not basing our opinions on conjecture or allegation.”

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Many of the women Fiorina is signing up as advisors for her initiative come from key early voting states that could be helpful if she did decide to explore the Republican presidential nomination. And though she declined to discuss her political plans, Fiorina said she has not ruled out a potential White House run.

“I never shut doors, it’s not wise to shut doors,” Fiorina said.

When the door to 2016 does open, however, Fiorina expects Republicans to face a “unique challenge” in countering former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton if she runs as expected.

“It’s a unique challenge because she’s a woman,” Fiorina said. “It’s a unique challenge because she inherits a fantastic ground game from President Obama … It’s unique because she will come into the race with a ton of money behind her and virtually unchallenged.”

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Johnson is heir to the Johnson & Johnson fortune and during the 2012 presidential campaign led Mitt Romney’s fundraising operation in the New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut corridor. Donors use his annual fall event to size up the party’s potential presidential contenders. This year’s get-together took place last night in New York City; New Jersey governor Chris Christie, Florida senator Marco Rubio, Kentucky senator Rand Paul, Ohio governor John Kasich, New Hampshire senator Kelly Ayotte, and Romney himself were all in attendance.

One source says it was Rubio, whose remarks focused on America’s role in the world, who most impressed attendees. The first-term senator, says the source, offered a “global vision” for America’s role in the world, and “the need to come back” and talk about it. “It was very uplifting and it was insightful and it was good,” says the source. That’s a bit of a departure from years past, when Rubio has emphasized his personal biography: his humble upbringing and all-American success story.

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To this group[ of neoconservatives], beating back the rising tide of non-interventionism in the Republican party is a top priority, and they consider Rubio a candidate, if not the candidate, capable of doing so. “I think it’s very important that any isolationist arguments be defeated well and be defeated early,” says a neoconservative foreign-policy expert who talks with Rubio frequently…

“Whereas Rubio clearly has some views that he has considered and articulated, my sense of Cruz is that he is much less formed by conviction,” says one foreign-policy expert who has met with both potential candidates. “His background was really more on the domestic side.”

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“I think he wants to be in a position where if everyone else implodes, he’s the one that party leaders call to save the day,” one former Romney adviser told National Journal.

For a man who guessed he’d be branded a “loser for life,” an eager jump into the fray could be embarrassing. If he was courted, though, the ambitious politician could be swayed by a call to fulfill his patriotic duty.

At the Chicago event, Romney said there were “other good people in the party” thinking about running, and he told CBS’s Bob Schieffer earlier this year that he’d be “supporting one of them very vigorously.” He’s had his turn, he’s said, and should step aside for the new crop of GOP leaders. But if the field collapses, the Republican establishment could find him waiting in the wings.

“Could he be drafted? Could everyone from the party come and say, ‘You have to run because you’re the only person’? Is that possible? Sure,” Kaufman said.

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