GOP leaders Jindal, Christie, McDonnell, Walker begin jockeying for 2016

Less than two weeks after Republican nominee Mitt Romney came up short in his bid to unseat President Barack Obama, the next class of potential GOP presidential hopefuls is laying the groundwork for bids of their own. 

Mel Evans/AP
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie answers a question in Trenton, N.J., on Nov. 13.

Louisiana's Bobby Jindal is urging the Republican Party to rethink its pitch to voters. Bob McDonnell of Virginia says Republicans should look to outsiders to fix partisan gridlock in Washington. Their fellow governor, Wisconsin's Scott Walker, says the next GOP leader must do a better job explaining why the party's policies will help ordinary Americans.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is holding court with admirers — and ignoring reporters as he ducks into nominally private meetings. And Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida is packing his bags for a very public trip to Iowa.

Yes, the jockeying for 2016 has already begun.

Less than two weeks after Republican nominee Mitt Romney came up short in his bid to unseat President Barack Obama, the next class of potential GOP presidential hopefuls is laying the groundwork for bids of their own. Some subtle and some overt, the maneuvering by would-be-candidates runs along a sometimes perilous path marked by donors, operatives and party elders.

"Everybody who is already thinking about the 2016 presidential race need to have their head examined," Jindal said in an interview on the sidelines of the Republican Governors Association meeting on the Las Vegas Strip. "Anybody thinking about 2016 is absolutely ridiculous."

Yet, here's Jindal, providing a stinging criticism of Romney's campaign and offering an alternative. He urged his party to work for middle-class voters and to shed the label of a party for "big business and big banks." The party needs to retool its entire messaging — not just "minor cosmetic changes" — and go after every voter, he said, not just those who are white.

"There's a lot of important work that needs to be done over the next several months and years," the 41-year-old Louisiana governor said, positioning himself as a pragmatic candidate in a party that lacks a standard-bearer.

After Romney's failure, many of his fellow Republicans are urging his quick departure from the spotlight. In the process, they seem to be putting themselves forward in subtle ways as his possible successor and planting the seeds of a White House run of their own.

In appearances and interviews, the 58-year-old McDonnell worked to cast himself as the conservative foil to Obama, tweaking the Democratic administration on everything from health care to energy policy. At every opportunity, McDonnell spoke of himself as a political outsider.

"There is a brand, there is a set of ideas that Republican governors are offering that stands in fairly stark contrast to what Washington is offering," McDonnell told reporters on Thursday. "Washington is broken. It's in debt. It's engaged in partisan bickering."

The Virginia governor, who is set to leave office in early 2014, is already fanning speculation about his next move. He is coming off a successful turn as chairman of the Republican Governors Association, which will soon count 30 members among its ranks, and stepping up his national profile.

Another outsider, Wisconsin's Walker, tried to soften his image with a big-tent pitch that welcomed more voters. The first governor to survive a recall election, Walker said the answer lies in how leaders communicate with voters.

"I think it's not that our beliefs are wrong," said Walker, 45. "I don't think we do an effective enough job of articulating those beliefs and what it means in people's lives."

He isn't talking about a 2016 candidacy, of course, but Walker said governors' experiences are typically an advantage.

Another tough-talking figure, Christie tried to dodge headlines entirely on his trip to Las Vegas, his first outside New Jersey since Superstorm Sandy battered its coastline. Christie, 50, brushed aside questions about his political future and steadfastly refused approaches from reporters.

Instead of a public show, Christie met in private with former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, one of the GOP's top strategists and a potential kingmaker in 2016.

To be sure, other would-be candidates are eyeing the next presidential race, and it's far too early to draft an exhaustive list of potential contenders. For instance, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum is keeping his network of supporters in Iowa engaged. And Romney's running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, has returned to his job in Congress while his allies work to make sure he doesn't preclude a presidential bid.

Such behind-the-scenes efforts are in stark contrast to Rubio, the 41-year-old, first-term senator from Florida, who is making a post-Election Day trip to Iowa this weekend. Ostensibly, the purpose of Rubio's trip is to attend Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad's birthday party.

"It's going to be a great event," Branstad said with a wide grin.

The political importance is not lost on anyone, given that Iowa hosts the first presidential caucuses.

"Come to Iowa," Branstad urged, "early and often."

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