- Potential 2016 presidential candidates already influencing national dialogue
- While it's too early to mount a campaign, there are steps potential candidates are taking
- Social conservatives have large say in later primaries but centrist could do well in N.H.
Earlier this year, as Frank Guinta was driving his children to school, he turned on a local radio station and heard Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul talking about Guinta's failed attempt to win re-election to Congress just a few months earlier.
Paul was discussing the future of the Republican Party and the need for the GOP to maintain its traditional political base while also welcoming more libertarian-minded conservatives. The Kentucky senator then started citing specific data from the 2012 general election, including Guinta's race.
"Your two Republicans up there lost recently for Congress," Paul said to New Hampshire political reporter James Pindell in the telephone interview on WGIR. "They lost by four percentage points, and the libertarian in each race got 4½ percent, so really we do have to figure out a way to attract some of those voters who are voting libertarian if we want to have enough of a majority to win."
Guinta, who served just one term in the House, said he was intrigued to hear Paul talk about his race, let alone in so much detail. "This was not his political adviser," the New Hampshire Republican said during a recent interview over breakfast. "It was him."
But Guinta, who is considering running for office in 2014, said he was not shocked by the moment. After all, this is New Hampshire, which holds the first-in-the-nation primary. And Republicans with designs on the White House are always keeping close tabs on what happens in the Granite State.
It would just be a few months later, in May, when Paul would actually visit the state to headline a New Hampshire GOP fundraiser and convene a listening session with local activists. It was not lost on anyone that Paul dug into his own political pocket and donated $10,000 to the state GOP.
Despite smug dismissals of early campaign coverage by press critics, media elites and some of the potential candidates themselves, there are signs everywhere -- including Paul's intricate recitation of New Hampshire congressional contests -- that the 2016 race for president is starting to take shape, at least among Republicans.
Take, for instance:
• This week's Faith and Freedom Coalition conference, which has been widely described as the first 2016 GOP presidential cattle call. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and Paul are all participating.
• New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's willingness to play along with a 2016 joke on Wednesday's "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon."
• Paul's visits already to Iowa and New Hampshire, and upcoming trips to South Carolina and Iowa (again).
• Cruz's appearance last month at a South Carolina GOP fundraiser and an upcoming visit to Iowa.
• Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal headlining a New Hampshire Republican fundraiser last month.
• Ohio Sen. Rob Portman headlining a fundraiser this week for the New Hampshire Republican Party.
• Rubio's use of his political action committee to finance a television commercial that defended New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte against critics of her position on gun rights.
• Santorum's visit to South Carolina in March to campaign for a Republican candidate in a special congressional election, and his planned visit to Iowa this summer.
• Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's appearance at a county Republican fundraiser in Iowa last month.
To dismiss all this political activity would be naïve. Beyond the obvious -- control of the White House and the direction of the country for four or eight years -- these potential candidates are already exerting influence over the national dialogue and the direction of their political party.
• On immigration: Rubio is the key player at the moment, while Cruz may have an influential role as the legislation is being debated.
• On the surveillance controversy: Paul has become a chief spokesman opposing this collection of information.
• On the state of the GOP: Jindal has admonished fellow Republicans to "stop being the stupid party."
• On where to find solutions: Perry and Walker emphasizing the need for national Republicans to look to the states for answers.
While New Hampshire Republicans acknowledge that it's too early for candidates to engage in a full-blown campaign, there are steps potential presidential candidates can take now that are being welcomed, if not embraced.
"What Paul and Jindal are doing is very smart," Rich Killion, a GOP strategist based in Concord, said of the fundraising for the state party and air cover provided to Ayotte. "They are trying to do well for others and by doing so are helping themselves. It's never too early when you come on behalf of others."
But when is too early? It's fair to say that Mitt Romney never stopped running for president after he lost the GOP nomination in 2008, and Tim Pawlenty was very active early on in building a campaign structure for the 2012 election, only to become the first candidate to drop out of the race in August 2011.
What a candidate can't do is suddenly decide to run for president a year before the primary without having done any spade work and expect strong results.
"You can't do it in 12 months," said New Hampshire Republican Party Chair Jennifer Horn, who noted that a campaign needs to begin sooner rather than later. And when the candidates arrive, Horn said, "The issues that push New Hampshire voters are jobs, the economy, and individual freedoms."
While social conservatives play an influential role in the Iowa and South Carolina primaries, New Hampshire Republicans tend to be more focused on economic issues, which could provide a springboard for more a centrist Republican eyeing the White House -- someone like Christie.
"New Hampshire voters focus on the issues that directly affect them, primarily the economy," said Alicia Preston, a Republican consultant based in Hampton Beach. "Social issues tend to be second-tier for most New Hampshire voters and they are willing to accept a social moderate as long as they have a fiscal conservative badge."
If there is a contested primary-within-a-primary among social conservative candidates who spend their time, money and effort attacking one another in Iowa and South Carolina, that could further add to the already outsized influence New Hampshire has on the process of choosing the GOP nominee.
The winner of the New Hampshire primary might not suffer the same political wounds as the candidates who battled for support in the Iowa caucuses and prepared for, perhaps, a last stand in South Carolina.
Still, as early GOP maneuvering is on full public display, Democrats are largely in a holding pattern waiting to see if the 800-pound donkey in the room makes a move: former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
It's Clinton's for the having -- at least that's the conventional wisdom at this point -- if she wants the Democratic presidential nomination.
Should Clinton decide not to run, then Vice President Joe Biden rolling out the red carpet for Iowa and New Hampshire Democrats during the inauguration and Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley inviting New Hampshire Democrats down for a St. Patrick's Day party at the governor's residence will surely be remembered by those who hold an incredible amount of influence in choosing presidents.