The GOP's new primary schedule could hurt its most promising candidates

But several GOP strategists fear that the party is more focused on rooting out anything that might have contributed to its 2012 defeat than on cultivating its field of 2016 prospects. The new crop of hopefuls is filled with reform-minded governors and tea-party leaders—but many of the most promising contenders aren’t yet household names.

“Anytime you talk about limiting access and [debate] opportunities, it helps the front-runner. It really makes me nervous,” said former Iowa Republican Party Political Director Craig Robinson, who is now editor in chief of the Iowa Republican website. “There’s not much time to compete once you figure out who’s real or not. You don’t want to space it out so if you don’t win Iowa or New Hampshire, you don’t have a chance.”

In 2012, the establishment-favored, biggest-budget candidate was Mitt Romney, whom party officials viewed as the most electable in a weak field. The lengthy nomination process allowed underfunded long shots to stall Romney’s path to the nomination and forced him to tack to the right in the general election, hurting his electability.

But in 2016, the opposite could be true. With New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie looking less formidable in the wake of Bridgegate, there might not even be an establishment favorite this time around. The best-funded candidates with the most loyal followings could turn out to be grassroots favorites such as Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ted Cruz of Texas, who boast strong name identification, close ties to the base, and deep small-donor fundraising networks—but whose outspoken conservatism could hurt them in a general election. The party’s more-electable candidates could wind up being those like Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, a conservative Republican governor in a blue state who, at the moment, isn’t very well-known nationally.