The Democrats have Hillary Clinton. But who will run for the Republicans?

A long nomination struggle is precisely what the Republican chiefs do not want

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I’d run, but for the fact that my birthplace was Brighton, East Sussex, not Brighton, Massachusetts. OK, it’s just possible I wouldn’t win, even if I was US-born. Yet I’d still have “former presidential candidate” by my name for ever more. There’s gold in them there words – book deals, paid speeches, perhaps a regular spot on CNN.

This partly explains the current stampede for the 2016 Republican Party nomination. These would-be commanders-in-chief fall into three categories. Those who have a real shot and know it. The deluded who think they are Oval Office material when they are not. And, third, the cynics who use the process to grow their egos and get attention they can profit from later.

If you want to play tick-a-box for each likely runner give yourself plenty of time. While only seven have formally declared – the 2012 runner-up Rick Santorum was set yesterday to confirm he’d be giving it a second shot – the final field could total 16 or more at the first Republican candidates’ debate on 6 August in Cleveland, Ohio. Tick box three for Santorum at this point.

The other reason the nomination race will be so crowded and remain so long after the state-by-state primary and caucus voting kicks off early next year is money. Previously early contests – Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina – would sideline the weaklings as they ran out of cash. Today, every candidate can stay alive longer simply by creating a political action committee to back them. There are no limits on the money they can rake in.

Lots of choice seems healthy. After all the Democrats are fretting they won’t have enough of it. Senator Bernie Sanders, the self-described independent socialist, has charged in – his first big rally, with free Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, was in Vermont this week – and there may be a couple of other brave souls ready to join in, including former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley. But in reality, there is only one Democrat who will matter, Hillary Clinton.

Yet a protracted struggle for nomination is precisely what Republican party chiefs don’t want. The beating that Mitt Romney took last time from rivals in his own party wasn’t pretty. It’s why the Republican national convention is earlier than usual, in mid-July. But that makes it more likely that no clear winner will emerge before then, which would force a brokered convention – the worst scenario conceivable. A divided party means a damaged candidate. Beating Ms Clinton in the general election would become that much harder.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves. There were eight candidates on stage for the early Republican debates in the 2012 cycle and they were a mess. It was hard for anyone to stand out, unless you were Governor Rick Perry of Texas vowing to eliminate three federal departments and then being unable to remember more than two. (And, yes, he is planning to try again.) How can the debates work this year with as many as 20 vying for airtime?

Fox News, the host of the Cleveland debate, just came up with a solution. It will provide podiums only for those in the top ten of national polls at that moment. If you are not, don’t bother showing up. Fox will be doing what the Republican National Committee would love to do but can’t, culling the field before the race even starts. But the formula is a destructive and unfair distortion of the democratic process, the other, of course, being money itself.

We know early polls are unreliable. Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain both had their moments in the sun four years ago only to implode later. Moreover, the early running polls always favour those with high name recognition, never mind their actual competence. Thus Donald Trump might qualify to appear in Cleveland while John Kasich, who may well join the race, might not, never mind that he is the Governor of Ohio. Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, Senator Lindsey Graham and Carly Fiorina, likely to be the only woman in the field, could all be shut out. So too George Pataki.

But who has a better idea? Well, here is one. Fox has it the wrong way about. It is the top tier of Republicans – those secure in the knowledge that they belong to our first category of candidates – who should be asked to stay away. Count among them Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and Scott Walker (possibly Rand Paul). David Cameron absented himself from one debate in the UK election and it cost him nothing. Stephen Harper, whose own general election in Canada is around the corner, said last week he’d also be skipping one national debate currently in the calendar.

Actually they should skip the debate. By staying above the fray, they would spare themselves the first rounds of bloodletting. And be doing their party, and everyone tuning in, a big favour.