The message from Republican officials has been crystal clear for two years: The 2016 Republican primary cannot be another prolonged pummeling of the eventual nominee. Only one person ultimately benefited from that last time — Barack Obama — and Republicans know they can't afford to send a hobbled nominee up against Hillary Clinton.
Yet interviews with more than a dozen party strategists, elected officials and potential candidates a month out from the unofficial start of the 2016 election lay bare a stark reality: Despite the national party's best efforts, the likelihood of a bloody primary process remains as strong as ever.
The sprawling, kaleidoscope-like field that's taking shape is already prompting Republican presidential hopefuls to knock their likely rivals in private and, at times, publicly. The fact that several candidates' prospects hinge in part on whether others run only exacerbates that dynamic. Ultimately, the large pack won't be whittled for many months: Republicans have no idea who will end up running, and insiders don't expect the field will gel in any way until at least the spring of next year.
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"It feels like a big traffic jam after a sporting event," said Craig Robinson, a former executive director of the Republican Party of Iowa. "There's a lot of competition for every segment of the party."
At least 15 Republicans are weighing campaigns, with no clear front-runner. Contrast that with Clinton, who has solidified her Democratic support to a deeper extent than any candidate in recent memory.
There's no indication that the reforms suggested by the national Republican party to protect the eventual nominee — fewer debates, friendlier moderators and a truncated primary calendar — have necessarily altered how potential candidates are thinking about campaigning against other Republicans. In fact, they already are jockeying to define themselves — and their opponents — in sharp terms.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) is a prime example. Seeking to expand his base of support beyond tea party conservatives, Cruz, who has been working donors and elites aggressively, has routinely dismissed New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie in private conversations as the "Rudy Giuliani of this cycle," multiple sources told POLITICO. (A Cruz adviser noted that the senator has often praised Christie.) Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) denounced Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), an establishment avatar, in a Senate floor speech last month over what turned out to be an Internet hoax, a photo that falsely identified the senator meeting with Islamic State militants. When outgoing Texas Gov. Rick Perry attacked Paul's foreign policy views, Perry responded in kind.
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The desire in some quarters for a new tenor in the Republican primary is a visceral reaction to the party's bitter 2012 loss, and Clinton's commanding position on the Democratic side.
"I think because we've been frozen out of the White House for two terms here, I think Republicans by and large are going to be really focused on winning the general election and not wanting to do things to handicap your eventual nominee," Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) told POLITICO. He said that there will be "pressure this time around to ask candidates to play nice with one another so that we can make sure we can focus on the general election."
In an interview, Christie said, "It's always important for us not to destroy each other — it'd be nice."
"I think that after eight years in the wilderness, we should all be focused on winning," he said. "That would help. And I think if we did that, people will conduct themselves" in a positive way.
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Yet Christie and Paul spent a good chunk of 2013 savaging each other. And several Republicans point to a simple reality: After the GOP's tea party wing notched big wins in the 2010 and 2012 congressional elections, and establishment forces battled back successfully this year, both sides are primed for a fight.
Newt Gingrich, one of the short-lived insurgent front-runners in the 2012 primary, dismisses the party's desire to avoid bloodletting as "nonsense."
"There's a wing of the Republican party which would like life to be orderly and dominated by the rich," said Gingrich, whose own candidacy was enabled by a super PAC funded by $21 million from casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and his wife, Miriam. "And so they would like to take all of the things that make politics exciting and responding to the popular will and they would like to hide from it. The fact is, if you can't nominate somebody who can win debates and come out of the contest stronger, they wouldn't have a chance to beat Hillary in the general."
For his part, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus pushed through major changes for 2016, including a condensed primary calendar and fewer debates.
"What I can do is follow through on what I can control," Priebus said in an interview. "Limiting the process from a six-month slice-and-dice festival to 60-plus" days. Priebus added that he senses a "greater spirit of cooperation" among candidates who understand that the party is "not going to get ahead by killing each other."