Rand Paul rises, Jeb Bush jockeys: a big week for possible 2016 contenders

It was a week of serious maneuvering for Sen. Rand Paul, former Gov. Jeb Bush, and the others who could be presidential contenders in 2016. Who helped or hurt themselves the most?

Eric Gay/AP/File
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush speaks in Austin, Texas, last month.

The 2016 presidential race may be a long way off – but, as NBC's First Read notes, there was a striking amount of maneuvering among potential candidates this past week. While Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky probably "won" the week with his now-famous filibuster, he wasn't the only one who may have helped himself in the run-up to the 2016 campaign.

Here's a look at some of the possible contenders jockeying for position, and how they may have scrambled the race:

Rand Paul 

The junior senator from Kentucky set the rest of the field on notice that he is a force to be reckoned with by staging an old-fashioned talking filibuster, protesting the Obama administration's drone policy. Critics called it a political "stunt," but as stunts go, this one clearly worked. On a snow day when little else was going on, the unexpected spectacle of a legislator embracing physical discomfort to make a point drew unabashed praise from partisans on both the right and the left, and it put Senator Paul squarely in the media spotlight.

He earned a piece in Thursday's Politico saying that he was now in "the top tier of Republican power players" – and Paul himself "confidently" acknowledged that he was seriously considering a White House run.

Still, we're not sure this really changes things as much as it might seem. We've been saying all along that we think Paul will be a player to watch in 2016, since he has the potential to take his father's campaign apparatus and elevate it to another level. But we still aren't willing to remove the "dark horse" label from Paul – since so many of his views are outside the Republican mainstream, and some may prove deal breakers for GOP primary voters. 

Jeb Bush 

The former Florida governor inserted himself into the 2016 conversation in a big way in a series of interviews promoting a new book on immigration, in which for the first time he openly expressed interest in a possible presidential run. While not yet declaring himself a candidate, Mr. Bush's comments were direct enough to set donors and operatives on notice that they might want to wait before aligning themselves with anyone else (like, say, the junior senator from Florida).

But Bush also got into a bit of trouble on the issue of immigration, by appearing to change his position on a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. He'd previously expressed support for creating such a path – which is a key plank in the bipartisan legislation being hashed out on the Hill – but in his new book, he explicitly opposes it.

It remains unclear whether his positioning on immigration will simply wind up offending both sides or whether, despite charges of inconsistency, it will give him cover on an issue that remains tricky for Republicans (particularly if the legislation currently being crafted fails to pass).

Hillary Rodham Clinton 

While the most overt maneuvering may be happening on the Republican side, Mrs. Clinton has the ability to make news even when she does nothing. This week, we got a reminder of how formidable a candidate she would be. A new Quinnipiac poll found that Clinton would handily defeat New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), Florida Sen. Marco Rubio (R), and Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan (R) in head-to-head matchups (the latter two by double digits).

Maybe even more interesting, she'd beat Senator Rubio by an eye-popping 36 percentage points among Hispanics – a demographic that Republicans know they need to do better with, which is a big reason Rubio, whose parents are Cuban immigrants, has been considered a top-tier candidate.  

As for the rest ... 

Rubio didn't exactly have a bad week (at least, not compared to his "water break" during his State of the Union response). Yet as the closest thing the GOP has to a "front-runner," he took some hits from his potential rivals. The biggest headache for Rubio was undoubtedly the presidential talk coming from his fellow Floridian, Bush – who could steal donors and supporters and, according to some, potentially even force Rubio to put his own ambitions on hold for another cycle or two (though we're not so sure about that).

Also not great for Rubio was the above-mentioned poll showing that he would lose Hispanics (as well as the vote overall) to Clinton. And while Rubio was quick to jump on the Paul bandwagon, joining his filibuster with a short speech quoting rappers Wiz Khalifa and Jay-Z – well, let's just say at this point, we think he's in danger of overdoing the pop-culture references. 

Representative Ryan had lunch with President Obama at the White House, reminding everyone of the crucial role he will play in any deficit-reduction deal that emerges between the White House and congressional Republicans. His profile will rise further later this month when he is set to release a new GOP budget proposal.

Governor Christie had a bigger week last week, with the very public "diss" he received from CPAC (which we'd argue was a net plus for him). Still, in that poll with Clinton, it's worth noting that he performed the best of all the Republicans tested. And he continued to bolster his outsider, blunt-talking credentials this week by scolding Washington over the sequester: "Seems to me it should be pretty easy to fix," he said. "Get everybody in a room and ... don't let them leave until you fix it."

Finally, Vice President Joe Biden didn't get as much attention as some of the other possible contenders, but then again, he was pretty much everywhere this week. Speaking about the administration's commitment to Israel before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Walking across the bridge in Selma, Ala., to commemorate the famous 1965 civil rights march. Quietly stopping by a dinner for hunters in his home state of Delaware. (On the other hand, this week also brought a Roger Ailes interview in which the Fox News chief called Mr. Biden "dumb as an ashtray.")

We agree with most pundits that it's hard to envision Biden and Clinton running against each other. But if she opts out, he appears to be getting ready.

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