Commentary: 2016 campaign shifts to higher gear
January 21, 2014 10:20 AM

If anyone doubts that the 2016 presidential election campaign has begun already despite a lack of announced candidates, the furor surrounding the leading prospects of both major parties should dispel any such notion.

Both Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey and former first lady, Senator and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have found out quickly what it means to be the center of attention in the scramble to replace Barack Obama. Both are embroiled in controversy that probably would have gone away otherwise.

A scathing congressional report that raises questions about Clinton’s management, or lack of it, of the incident in Benghazi that took the life of Libyan Ambassador Chris Stevens and three of his security detail left little doubt that this would remain an issue in any decision to try once again to become the first woman to win a presidential nomination. Clinton said at the time of the tragedy the old rule that the buck stops at the top that she as the State Department’s chief would have to assume responsibility. The report re-emphasized as much.

As for Christie, the outrageous actions of some of his chief advisers to punish an obscure Democratic Party mayor who they thought should have endorsed the Republican governor’s re-election has raised lingering questions about his viability as a national candidate. The Fort Lee, N.J., four-day traffic jam at the George Washington Bridge that resulted from his aides’ juvenile dirty trick won’t go away easily despite Christie’s lengthy contention that he knew nothing about the event and that when he was shown the evidence immediately fired the culprits.

That’s all well and good but at least two official investigations are under way to determine the exact responsibility for this silly but expensive travesty, and one can expect any number of lawsuits from those who claim to have suffered from the lane closings on the ramp to the bridge into Manhattan.

More important, Christie will need somehow to overcome that kernel of doubt about his administrative honesty that the entire mess raised.

History is replete with examples that testify to the fact that being the “front runner” early in the race for the presidency is probably not the place to be. Former Michigan Gov. George Romney, the father of 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney, found that out when one simple remark blew him out of contention for the White House. He said that he had been “brain washed” by the military about the need to be in Vietnam. The perception of an ineffectual leader was too much to overcome for the onetime president of American Motors.

Clinton seems less vulnerable given her demonstrated and highly praised work at State. Her marks in the four years leading up to Benghazi have been as high as anyone in that difficult post in recent memory, and until the Libyan affair she had managed to keep herself out of controversy. She also has established her independence from her former president husband, an accomplishment that eluded her in 2008 when Barack Obama came out of nowhere to upset her chances. Other factors include the perception that she offers the best chance in the near future for a woman to become the nation’s chief executive and that she is a far more known quantity, an element that would give her an advantage over Christie when it comes to withstanding the political storm of a potential scandal.

Christie on the other hand has little of the same insulation. He has been on the scene only a short time and has made his reputation on being a sort of Jersey Shore tough guy who takes little of what he considers guff and lets things fall where they may. That is, of course, until the bridge matter when he was uncharacteristically contrite. The governor also must face another obstacle: his party’s viable right, where any number of presidential wannabes lurk. Some, like Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, have even moved more toward the center, but still maintain conservative credentials that most Republican hopefuls need to be viable for the nomination.

Much of this will shake down in the next months until the November midterm elections. Clinton’s backers are already raising money and Christie is expected to offer his campaign services to GOP candidates in the congressional races, and that undoubtedly will include conservatives, although at the moment he is considered by the party’s mainstream to be the best chance of fending off tea party radicals.

The fact is that the race already has begun and what occurs in the fall will decide the viability of both candidates and several more who will begin the long trek to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in earnest once that is over. Will Christie and Clinton still be around? I’m betting they are but just how potent depends on how well they overcome Fort Lee and Benghazi.

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