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Early Start to 2016 US Presidential Campaign Fuels Race

FILE - Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee speaks at the 2014 Republican National Committee winter meeting in Washington.

Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee have jump-started the 2016 presidential campaign.

Bush’s announcement in recent days that he is forming a political action committee as he explores a White House bid and his decision to resign all of his board memberships sent a strong signal throughout the potential Republican presidential field that he is taking a serious look at the 2016 race.

Huckabee decided to leave his television show on Fox even though he hasn’t made a final decision about running.

Bush is a favorite of the so-called “Establishment Wing” of the Republican Party while Huckabee still draws strong support from evangelical Christians and social conservative activists in the key early contest state of Iowa in early 2016.

Both Bush and Huckabee are well known to Republican voters and their decision to possibly jump into the fray early may speed up the decision-making process for a host of other contenders in what promises to be a crowded Republican presidential field.

Among those who may have to adjust their timetable for deciding are New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, Texas Senator Ted Cruz and Texas Governor Rick Perry.

The early moves by Bush and Huckabee could also put greater pressure on lesser-known Republicans to make a quicker assessment of their chances than they would otherwise like to do.

Among those in this category are Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, Indiana Governor Mike Pence, Ohio Governor John Kasich and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum.

Focus on Bush and Clinton

Bush has done well among potential Republican contenders in recent public opinion surveys of Republican voters. If he can win over some big-time Republican campaign donors early, he could prevent possible rivals like Christie and Rubio from getting early traction and fundraising help.

Enthusiastic backing from the establishment wing of the party could also put an end to speculation that 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney might be considering another run in 2016.

In announcing his new PAC, “Right to Rise,” Bush touched on a theme often pushed by progressive Democrats.

“While the last eight years have been pretty good ones for top earners, they’ve been a lost decade for the rest of America,” he said.

That kind of appeal could pay dividends in a general election if Bush becomes the nominee. But it could come back to haunt him in the Republican primaries as Tea Party favorites prepare to take him on.

As for Democrats, the main storyline continues to swirl around Hillary Clinton. The former secretary of state leads her potential Democratic rivals by huge margins in public opinion polls.

But that apparently hasn’t stopped some Democrats from worrying that the air of invincibility surrounding Clinton could become a problem once the caucus and primary votes begin.

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal said that some liberal Democratic activists in Iowa are hoping that Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren eventually decides to join the Democratic race, giving voice to those who want to make income inequality a major issue in the 2016 campaign.

Some activists are also wondering what happens if Clinton doesn’t run, but most expect some sort of announcement in the next few months.

New Republican Congress

Congress got back to work this week under new Republican management. Republicans now control both houses of Congress for the first time in eight years, and they enjoy their largest majority in the House since the 1940’s.

House Speaker John Boehner won a third term despite 25 Republicans who voted otherwise, a sign of continued discontent from Tea Party supporters who intend to remain a burr under Boehner’s saddle for the next two years.

The anti-Boehner vote total among Republicans was twice the size it was two years ago when conservatives mounted their first effort to derail his speakership.

It sets the stage for more tensions within the Republican conference in the House between those who want to show the public that Republicans can govern and a more conservative faction that believe current Republicans leaders are too timid to push for real change.

This dynamic will not only influence Republicans as they manage Congress but also will be highlighted in the early activity related to the battle for the party’s presidential nomination next year.

As one of their first priorities for 2015, Republicans plan to push ahead with a vote on the Keystone XL oil pipeline despite a veto threat from the Obama White House. The bill should easily pass the House and may draw enough Democratic votes to avoid a filibuster in the Senate, but probably won’t achieve a two-thirds-plus-one majority in the Senate needed to override a presidential veto.

Thus it’s possible one of the first acts of the new Congress will seem a lot like the last one—Democrats and Republicans stymied into deadlock. Despite the looming showdown, the new Senate Majority leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, said that while “hard work awaits” the new Congress, “I’m really optimistic about what we can accomplish.”

But the next two years could be a mix of gridlock and at least the potential for bipartisan cooperation on a handful of issues.

One of these is international trade.

The Obama White House is counting on Republican support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-nation trade pact that includes countries representing 30 percent of the world’s gross domestic product. But there may a hitch. Many pro-labor Democrats are leery of international trade deals that they contend have hurt union workers at home, especially in the manufacturing sector.

So heading into 2015 both parties will have to contend with contentious factions—Republicans will be pressured by Tea Party activists while Democrats face a growing progressive chorus determined to push action on income inequality.

Republican leaders have said repeatedly that they need to step up in 2015 and show the country they can lead Congress and get things done. McConnell and others have also said this is important to show voters that it would safe to elect a Republican president in 2016.

Democrats may also find themselves torn at times between a president nearing the end of his term determined to buttress his legacy and the desire to ensure another Democrat succeeds President Barack Obama in 2016.

The president’s public approval ratings have gone up a bit in recent weeks and Americans seem a bit more confident about the economy in general. That should help with voters looking ahead to the 2016 election. But at the same time history shows there is often a desire for change after a two-term president from either party.

Both parties have some intricate political dances to perform this year. It’s too early to know how much they will be dancing with each other to get things done in Congress and how much they will be performing solo as they audition White House candidates for 2016.

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    Jim Malone

    Jim Malone has served as VOA’s National correspondent covering U.S. elections and politics since 1995. Prior to that he was a VOA congressional correspondent and served as VOA’s East Africa Correspondent from 1986 to 1990. Jim began his VOA career with the English to Africa Service in 1983.