If Republican challenger Mitt Romney doesn’t emerge triumphant on Election Day, the party will have a deep bench of contenders to draw from in 2016. Here is a list of the top 10 to watch.
1. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie
In 2008, Republicans begged Christie to make a run for the White House. In 2016, the combative governor may be better positioned to seek the presidency, and there are signs that Christie wants the job: He used his keynote speech at the Republican convention mainly to tout his own accomplishments. Republicans love to see Christie play the role of partisan warrior, but Christie also projects a real sincerity that voters on both sides of the aisle appreciate. Christie’s tough talk didn’t stop him from winning in a left-leaning state.
2. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio
The Cuban-American senator is widely seen as a top pick for 2016, particularly as the GOP desperately needs to win over Hispanic voters as the electorate becomes more diverse. Rubio also has strong ties to the tea party, credentials that could help him in a Republican primary. In order to get the nomination, however, Rubio would need to prove that he’s a leader with substance commensurate to his celebrity. He’s also not the only Latino Republican with star power: New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez’s fiery speech at the convention blew Rubio’s remarks out of the water.
3. Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell
The outgoing chairman of the Republican Governors Association has been both charming on the campaign trail and adept at pushing his agenda through a bipartisan Legislature. As the governor of a swing state, he’s well-positioned for a run at the White House once he’s term-limited out of office in 2013. An Army veteran, McDonnell also has military credentials that many other contenders lack. McDonnell has positioned himself as a problem-solver, not an ideologue, but his willingness to sign legislation regulating abortion hasn’t endeared him to those who are moderate on social issues.
4. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush
Former President George W. Bush’s little brother has been out of politics for a while—he currently works in the private sector and is an active proponent of education reform— but he’s indisputably an elder statesman in the Republican Party. With a strong record on education and immigration reform, Bush represents a moderate brand of conservatism that could appeal to swing voters and Hispanics. In a party increasingly motivated by tea party sentiments, however, Bush may be less natural a fit. He has even publicly criticized the direction the GOP is moving in.
5. Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan
If GOP nominee Mitt Romney loses in 2012, his vice presidential pick is well-positioned for a run at the White House in 2016. Ryan, the policy-focused chairman of the House Budget Committee, is widely viewed by Republicans as one of the party’s best spokesmen for its legislative agenda. His vice presidential nomination ensures that he’s nationally known. The biggest downside to a Ryan bid: As a member of the House who has spent his life in Washington, Ryan has little executive or business experience. So far, however, that hasn’t slowed his rise.
6. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul
Libertarian icon Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, may have run for the presidency for the last time, but he has an heir waiting in the wings: his son, Rand. The elder Paul’s cult following showed its strength during the 2012 Republican primaries, and his minimalist-government philosophy has made its mark on mainstream Republican thought. Rand, who endorsed Romney for president in 2012, is seen as less ideologically rigid than his father, an impression that hurts the younger Paul among die-hard Ron Paul supporters but helps him garner wider GOP support.
7. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal
The young and wonky governor of Louisiana coasted to a second term last year, and 2016 might finally mark a good opportunity for Jindal to take a run at higher office. Jindal has been viewed as an up-and-coming star in the party since he won the governorship in 2007. He will serve as chairman of the Republican Governors Association next year. Jindal didn’t shy away from raising his national profile this cycle, stumping for Romney and heading to Iowa to back Texas Gov. Rick Perry in the Republican primary. Jindal returned to Iowa this fall, traveling the state with former Sen. Rick Santorum in a campaign to oust a state Supreme Court judge who has supported same-sex marriage.
8. South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley
When Nikki Haley rode a wave of tea party support into the South Carolina governor’s mansion, she was hailed as the party’s newest breakout star. As a woman and an Indian-American, Haley represents two demographics—women and minorities—that Republicans struggled to win over in 2012. Haley’s governorship hasn’t been all smooth sailing, however; she has alienated both opponents and former supporters with her management style, The State has reported. Haley may be more well-regarded nationally than she is locally.
9. South Dakota Sen. John Thune
Rumored as a potential candidate in 2012, Thune chose instead to stay in the Senate and focus on ascending in the Republican leadership. The Senate Republican Conference chairman doesn’t have strong name recognition nationally, but he’s well-known in Washington as a legislator who has the fundraising and retail politicking skills—not to mention the good looks—of a presidential hopeful. Strong D.C. ties have their downsides; in Thune’s case, it could include his vote to bail out Wall Street in 2008.
10. Indiana Rep. Mike Pence
Pence, a six-term congressman, looks set to win the Indiana governorship on Tuesday. Some Republicans are already calling on him to consider a run for even higher office. Pence—who describes himself as “a Christian, a conservative, and a Republican, in that order”— is well-regarded in the tea party and is an able fundraiser.
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