Hot Air readers won’t be surprised by the lack-of-dynamic dynamic from the first big names testing the GOP’s 2016 waters, of course, but supporters of Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush might be — if they can be found. According to a new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, approval ratings for both men dropped after making clear they plan to run for the party’s presidential nomination. And that retreat comes from within the big tent of the Republican Party:

Just 27 percent of Americans now offer a positive rating for Romney, the Republican party’s nominee in 2012, compared to 40 percent who give him negative marks. And just over half of Republicans – 52 percent – give him a thumbs up, while 15 percent disagree.

In September of last year, when Romney was widely expected NOT to seek the presidency again, his ratings stood at 32 percent positive/ 39 percent negative. With Republicans, that split was 60 percent positive/ 13 percent negative.

While former Florida governor Jeb Bush is not quite as well-known as Romney, with 13 percent of respondents saying they don’t know the name, he’s also seen a drop in approval since announcing that he’s “actively exploring” a 2016 run.

Just 19 percent of Americans now give Bush a positive rating, while 32 percent assess him negatively. His fans include just 37 percent of Republicans, while 15 percent offer a poor assessment of him.

That’s compared to an overall rating last November of 26 percent positive and 33 percent negative. Among Republicans at that time, Bush’s rating stood at 44 percent positive to 12 percent negative.

It’s actually a little worse than this description indicates, at least among the general population. Romney had a “very positive” rating of 24% in October 2012, just before the election; it’s down to 8% now. That’s still better than Bush, whose “very positive” rating has never gone into double digits in this series, and now stands at 5%. Compare that to Hillary Clinton, who gets 20% — her lowest rating since the summer of 2008, but still far outpacing the two well-known potential GOP rivals.

This is not an issue with name recognition. It’s more than familiarity breeds contempt, even if that contempt may be somewhat unfair to both men. Republicans cannot woo voters by offering another nostalgia campaign, especially since Democrats seem bound and determined to do exactly that with Hillary Clinton and a return to the 1990s. They have to offer a forward-looking campaign set in the present, and as I argue in my column for The Week, the GOP has plenty of talent with which to do so:

When Reagan ran in 1976 and again in 1980, he represented something new within the party. Reagan was a new voice of Goldwater-esque conservatism combined with a record of practical application. By the end of the 1970s, the Nelson Rockefeller Republicans had lost the GOP rank and file and had failed to inspire the moderates in either party. Reagan brought a new approach to Republican politics, a sunny optimism about personal liberty and a fighting spirit for freedom abroad that soared over the heads of his more pessimistic competition.

In short, Ronald Reagan represented not just the future of the Republican Party, but the aspirations of the electorate for the future of the United States. Regardless of their desires, Romney and Bush represent the past: the past of their own track records, and the past of the Republican Party.

Ironically, the GOP may have an abundance of candidates who can lay a better claim to the mantle of Reagan than either Romney or Bush. A number of two-term Republican governors, for instance, who first won office by courting the grassroots and won second terms by fulfilling promises of significant conservative reform. Scott Walker reformed state government and survived a recall challenge by Big Labor in Wisconsin, not all that dissimilar to Reagan’s fight with striking air-traffic controllers. Bobby Jindal reformed state-run education in Louisiana. Susana Martinez cleaned up a corrupt state government in New Mexico. Mike Pence expanded on reforms initiated by Mitch Daniels in Indiana. Nikki Haley in South Carolina, John Kasich in Ohio, and Rick Snyder in Michigan may all make similar claims in the next few months, too.

I’d include Rick Perry on that list too, plus arguably Senate hopefuls like Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Rand Paul. They have all won elections in the present Republican Party, not the GOP circa 2002 — before bailouts, before ObamaCare, and before the Tea Party became the latest expression of Goldwaterism. These are Republicans of the present, those who know and engage the electorate as it is rather than as it was. They may need some time to match the name recognition of Hillary Clinton, but that investment will make the GOP the party of the future and not the past … unless it chooses to remain hobbled by the latter.