Grand old mess: There are many high-quality candidates in the Republican presidential race, but 16 is too much of a good thing


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The Independent Online

John Kasich became the 16th, and probably the last, Republican to announce he is a candidate for his party’s 2016 presidential nomination. By any yardstick he is one of the most qualified: a Congressman for 18 years with proven expertise in both economic and national security policy, and now a successful two-term Governor of Ohio, a vital swing state in every election.

His outspoken personality and record of “compassionate conservatism” have made him a favourite of the media pundits (usually, one hastens to add, a kiss of death for the recipient, given the ever more right-wing make-up of Republican primary voters). But a more pertinent question right now is whether he will be able to make his voice heard amid the babel of the competition.

One way and another, the Republicans are in a mess. The shambles are evident on Capitol Hill, despite the GOP majorities in both House and Senate. Ditto on the campaign trail. In their quest for the White House, the prize that really matters, the plethora of candidates is already far, far too much of a good thing – even given the quality of the field, which includes seven past or present state governors and four sitting US senators. In a fortnight, the first televised candidates debate takes place in the city of Cleveland, in Mr Kasich’s home state. But only the top 10 in the polls will be invited to show their stuff to a national audience. As of Tuesday Mr Kasich was not making the cut. One who almost certainly will however is Donald Trump.

Mr Trump is arguably the prime cause of the Republicans’ disarray. It is easy to dismiss the recent surge in the polls by the property magnate, TV host and compulsive attention-getter as a product of the political silly season. Remember that around this stage of the cycle in 2011, the field was headed by the pizza magnate Herman Cain.

One thing Mr Trump excels at is making his voice heard with provocative remarks, aimed not least at immigrants, that he refuses to retract. It may be he has gone too far with his assertion that Senator John McCain – held prisoner for years by the North Vietnamese in brutal conditions – was not a war hero.

Already, however, Mr Trump’s antics have inflicted serious damage on a party that has to be taken seriously if it is to win next year, when simple demographics – the ever expanding Hispanic population for starters – militates against the Republicans, so dependent on elderly white voters. Silly season or not, Mr Trump has struck a chord with the party’s right, and has shown his ability, in Mr McCain’s words, “to fire up the crazies”. His wealth frees him from reliance on super-PACs and billionaire patrons. The nightmare for the Republican establishment is that he runs as an independent, siphoning off enough votes to hand the election to the Democratic candidate, almost certain to be Hillary Clinton.

With or without Mr Trump, the field will be winnowed as the more outlandish candidacies wither, perhaps even before the primary season kicks off in February. Those left standing will probably include Jeb Bush, Wisconsin’s Governor Scott Walker, the young Florida Senator Marco Rubio, as well as a standard bearer for social conservatives, and perhaps Mr Kasich.

The basic reason for the flood of candidates is the Republican belief that, after two terms of a not especially popular Democratic President, the 2016 election is eminently winnable. But the present chaos cannot be allowed to last. The US election process may seem interminable; time, however, is not on the Republicans’ side.