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Meet your 2016 GOP front-runners: Jeb Bush, yes, and a Midwestern surprise

Republicans have seven strong 2016 contenders, according to a new poll of early-nominating states. Only two showed double-digit support in all three states: Jeb Bush and Scott Walker.

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    Then-Gov. Jeb Bush (R) of Florida speaks at a news conference in Tallahassee, Fla., June 2005.
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A trio of new NBC News/Marist polls paint a stark picture of the 2016 presidential race. With less than a year before the first presidential contests, the Republican side is awash with 2016 hopefuls, while across the aisle, one candidate looms large – Hillary Rodham Clinton.

The polls, which looked at the early nominating states of Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, found seven different potential Republican candidates with double-digit support in at least one state: former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson.

Interestingly, while the GOP side remains wide open, a couple of front-runners appear to be emerging. Only two potential candidates are in double digits in all three states: Bush and Walker. It's still early in the race, but their early support hints that this pair may be the last two standing after the furor of primary season.

Recommended: 14 Republicans running in 2016

The poll foreshadows "a rough-and-tumble Republican nomination battle," says pollster Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion.

Here's how the GOP candidates fared in the three states polled by NBC News and Marist.

In Iowa, Mr. Huckabee leads the GOP pack. He got support from 17 percent of potential Republican caucus-goers, followed by Mr. Bush at 16 percent, Mr. Walker at 15 percent, Mr. Christie at 9 percent and Mr. Paul, at 7 percent.

In New Hampshire, Bush led, with support from 18 percent of potential GOP primary voters, followed by Walker at 15 percent, Paul at 14 percent and Christie at 13 percent.

And in South Carolina, no surprise, native son Mr. Graham garnered the most support, at 17 percent. He was followed by Bush at 15 percent, Walker at 12 percent, and Huckabee tied with retired neurosurgeon Dr. Carson at 10 percent.

Of course, that could be good news for the GOP: a competitive race can winnow the field to the best candidate and prepare that candidate for the bruising trial that is an American presidential campaign. It can also lead to a long road pockmarked with opportunities for career-derailing gaffes, as seen in the 2012 GOP primary battles.

By comparison, the Democratic nomination contest is much less competitive. In a nutshell: Hillary, Hillary, Hillary.

In Iowa, former Secretary of State Clinton leads Vice President Joe Biden by more than 50 points, 68 percent to 12 percent.

She's ahead of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders by the same margin in New Hampshire, 69 percent to 13 percent.

And in South Carolina, Clinton has a 45-point advantage over Biden, 65 percent to 20 percent.

Which is why it's no surprise Hillary has been staying out of the spotlight, and will most likely delay her campaign kickoff –no need to step into the fray if she's already leading by a landslide.

As for a hypothetical match-up in the early nominating states between the front-runners – Clinton, Bush, and Walker – Clinton still leads in two out of three states, but there's room for movement.

In Iowa, Clinton holds an eight-point advantage over Bush, 48 percent to 40 percent, and an 11-point edge over Walker, 49 percent to 38 percent.

In New Hampshire, Clinton holds a similar lead over Bush, 48 percent to 42 percent, and a slightly smaller one over Walker, 49 percent to 42 percent.

And in the GOP-leaning state of South Carolina, Bush edges out Clinton by three points, 48 percent to 45 percent, while Walker and Clinton tie with 46 percent each.

Our takeaway: Expect crushing competition in a crowded Republican field – and expect Hillary to crush the competition in a deserted Democratic field.

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