Fiscal cliff as first battle of 2016 election

Rick Klein, Amy Walter, Richard Coolidge & Sherisse Pham
Power Players

Top Line

The fiscal cliff -- automatic tax increases and spending cuts that would go into effect January 1st if Congress and the White House fail to agree to a fix -- is going to dominate the rest 2012, but it could be the potential 2016 candidates that play critical roles in what happens toward the end of the year. This is the first round of the 2016 primaries; how these politicians deal with the fiscal cliff challenge is going to be the first thing that we talk about four years hence, it is going to be a defining moment for all of them.

Many Republicans are looking to Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., chairman of the budget committee and former vice presidential candidate, for signals on what they should be doing as these fiscal cliff talks play out. As the budget guru, he is the guy everybody trusts to run the numbers. Ryan is well-positioned to become the leader of the hardliners, the group that pushes against President Obama, which would win him support among the GOP base. But he then risks looking like a true partisan going into 2016. If we learned anything from this 2012 election, it is that the partisans will only get you so far.

Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal fits the category of the executive, he has the benefit of being outside of Washington to escape blame if the deal goes sour. Republicans are also saying Jindal, a governor with hands on experience, is the kind of guy they need to put forward in 2016. He is also someone who knows more about health care than almost anybody else in the GOP. When discussions of Medicare and Medicaid come to play, Jindal can look like the smart guy, as opposed to just the political guy.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., is seen as the answer for Republicans on the demographics problem -- he's young, Hispanic, and comes from an important state. But he has not really been a policy leader. The fiscal cliff negotiation is an opportunity to give himself some policy heft. Unfortunately for Rubio, senate Republicans are largely irrelevant for this discussion; this deal is largely going to be cut between Speaker Boehner and the president.

For more on this topic, check out this week's episode of Top Line.

ABC News' Jordyn Phelps contributed to this episode.