Christie, Cruz and Kasich get a second look

Story highlights

  • Julian Zelizer: As primaries approach, media and voters are giving some candidates who had fared poorly another look
  • Christie, Cruz and Kasich may benefit, he says

Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University, a New America fellow and author of "The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society." The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)Now that the caucuses and primaries are getting closer, there are a handful of Republican candidates who were once virtually left for dead but are now getting a second look from the media, politicos and even the voters.

After running behind the pack for months, struggling just to stay out of the kiddie-table debates, these candidates are finally being discussed as having some promise. To be sure, many of the basic contours of the race have not changed in the past few weeks, other than Jeb Bush's precipitous fall from grace and Ben Carson's fall in the face of questions about his ability to handle foreign policy.
Donald Trump continues to do well in the polls and shows his ability to dominate media through his controversial statements. Sen. Marco Rubio continues to position himself as the top mainstream candidate who is ready to break away from the pack and secure the nomination.
    But for the first time in a long time, there are other candidates who are getting a little buzz. Though the probability of their succeeding remains extremely low for all the reasons that have bogged them down until this point, they are reentering the fray and helping shape the debate. Their goal is to stay in this race long enough so that they can be in the running if Jeb never regains his footing, Rubio is unable to move up to the next level, and Trump finally sees the air go out of his political balloon.
    Who are the second-look candidates?

    Chris Christie

    He is the candidate who has refused to give up. For over a year, he has unsuccessfully struggled to regain his footing from the scandal over the politically inspired closing of traffic lanes on the George Washington Bridge. Christie has been dogged by the perception that he is ruthlessly political and the fears that more, and more damaging, news about scandal could be around the corner. The troubles that have faced the economy of New Jersey have also been a persistent problem.
    But now Christie is enjoying a minor comeback. The endorsement of the New Hampshire newspaper, the Union Leader, is an important development. What is it about Christie that continues to have appeal? The most relevant factor is that he remains one of the handful of candidates who seems to have real electoral appeal to moderates.
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    With much of his party racing to the right in the effort to undercut Donald Trump and play to the tea party activists, Christie and his record in a blue state offers -- relative to the other candidates -- one of the few people whose political style and policy record might do well in a general election. As we have seen with other governors, his work as a chief executive can be packaged as the best evidence that he could handle the job of the presidency.
    Since the horrendous terrorist attacks in Paris, Christie has worked hard to remind voters that compared to the rest of the Republicans, he has spent a large amount of time working on counterterrorist programs since he has governed a state that exists in the shadow of 9/11. He also worked as a U.S. attorney under President George W. Bush. As a Republican who never left the hawkish fold, his defense of a muscular national security policy has gained more interest during the recent weeks of the campaign.
    There is also his personal appeal, which has always remained strong. He has allowed the media to see a few glimpses of the outspoken personality that many New Jersey candidates originally liked by speaking about his experiences, such as 9/11. Many observers found it powerful when Christie made statements criticizing his own colleagues, such as: "It's easy to be pro-life for the nine months you're in the womb. They haven't done anything to disappoint us yet. They're perfect in there! But when they get out, that's when it gets tough. The 16-year-old teenage girl on the floor of the county lockup, addicted to heroin, I'm pro-life for her, too."

    Ted Cruz

    Few people have benefited from Donald Trump as much as the Texas senator. When the Republican campaigning started, the senator epitomized many of the characteristics that so many voters didn't like about the GOP -- the obstructionist and extremist tactics that the party employed to block progress in Washington. Cruz had also taken extremist positions on issues like gay marriage and immigration that seemed a recipe for defeat. Personally, he had even burned bridges with many Republicans who believed that his only real goal with everything he did was to make himself president.
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    But Trump changed the playing field. He pushed extremism to new levels by using incendiary rhetoric about issues such as immigration and gender, relying on a cutthroat style of politics that has made Cruz's filibusters look downright tame.
    This has given Cruz, with his Senate experience, the ability to appear like a reasonable and electable right-wing conservative in the political game. As the right wing of the Republican Party tries to decide who to back, Cruz is reaching out to voters as the only candidate with conservative credentials who has the serious political experience and the discipline necessary to win. Unlike Trump, Cruz has also proven his chops with the right through a voting record that lacks anything which can be called liberal.

    John Kasich

    If there is any time in the next few weeks when there is demand for an experienced Republican who can present himself as the most "reasonable" person in the room, that's the moment which Kasich hopes to exploit. Although the Washington establishment loves the Ohio governor, the voters have not really taken to him.
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    But he continues to earn attention and command respect. His promise, more than anything, is his ability to govern. He has served in a number of capacities -- as congressman and as governor -- and shown that he is willing to make deals. He knows how to compromise on issues such as his willingness to accept Medicaid expansion, even while sticking with his conservative credentials on matters like public spending. In an era where there is a dire need for political flexibility, Kasich wants to claim that he is one of the only people, certainly in the GOP, who can handle the challenge.
    All of the problems with these candidates remain. Christie is haunted by his scandal in New Jersey, Cruz is very far to the right and a person who would face "likeability" problems far more than Hillary Clinton, and Kasich isn't gaining much traction with voters looking for some sizzle and spark.
    The odds of any of them winning the nomination are extremely thin. The temporary interest in their candidacies will likely just be a blip. But they aren't out yet. And until they are, there is still a chance. Odder things have happened, as Trump's continued success has shown.
    Many Republicans are extraordinarily concerned about what might happen if Trump wins the nomination. They agree with Matt Borges, the chairman of the Republican Party in Ohio, who told The New York Times: "If he carries this message into the general election in Ohio, we'll hand this election to Hillary Clinton -- and then try to salvage the rest of the ticket."
    With this sentiment in the air among powerful players in the Republican Party, some of whom are willing and determined to stop Trump with their money and ads, there is a perception that the race remains in flux. If the real estate mogul stumbles, and Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio can't claim front-runner status, they are all hoping that the dynamics of this campaign can change as Republican voters desperately search for someone to defeat Hillary Clinton.