CONCORD, New Hampshire (Reuters) - Seeking to raise money for the New Hampshire Republican Party, state chairwoman Jennifer Horn recently called the party’s national boss, Reince Priebus, with a question: Could he get Rand Paul to visit?
The request, and Paul’s appearance here last Monday in a room packed with 500 Republicans, spoke volumes about the party as its followers - some energized by the scandals surrounding Democratic President Barack Obama’s administration - are already looking to the 2016 elections.
With no clear presidential front-runner in their party, Republicans are in shopping mode.
They are looking for signs of a candidate who could unite the party’s religious right, its more moderate establishment and its libertarian, anti-tax Tea Partiers in a way that Mitt Romney, the 2012 presidential nominee, could not do.
And they are looking for someone who could appeal to - or at least not offend - Hispanics, non-white women and other parts of the electorate that went big for Obama and Democrats last year.
That’s why, just four months into Obama’s second term, Paul is part of a stampede of Republican would-be contenders who are criss-crossing the country meeting voters, recruiting potential donors and currying favor with local politicians who could help determine their fate in a run for the White House.
The lessons of Romney’s bitter loss in November are never far away. On Monday, Paul made jokes about neighboring (and more liberal) Massachusetts and chided leading Democrat Hillary Clinton. But the Kentucky senator also made a point of calling for a more diverse Republican Party, one that, in his words, should have room for tattooed, bearded and pony-tailed voters.
“If you want to be party of white people, we’re winning all the white vote,” Paul said. “But we’re a diverse nation. We’re going to win when we look like America.”
Paul, the son of libertarian upstart Ron Paul, a Republican presidential contender last year, is on a tour of states such as New Hampshire and Iowa that will hold crucial contests at the start of the 2016 presidential primary season.
Other potential contenders are on the road as well.
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker ventured this week to Iowa, where the first votes traditionally are cast in the presidential campaign, for a pair of fundraisers.
In early June, Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie will mingle with supporters of Romney’s campaign at a gathering in Park City, Utah.
Reuters/Ipsos tracking polls this week show Ryan - Romney’s vice presidential running mate last year - and Christie with a slight edge in a crowded field of possible contenders.
Among others tipped to run, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal has popped up in New Hampshire in recent weeks, and Texas Senator Ted Cruz, another Tea Party favorite, spoke at a dinner for Republicans in South Carolina, a conservative state that will host the 2016 campaign’s first primary in the South.
Florida Senator Marco Rubio has been busy in Washington promoting a plan to overhaul the nation’s immigration system, but he has quietly laid some groundwork for a 2016 campaign.
Rubio’s political action committee recently paid for an ad defending Senator Kelly Ayotte, who has been criticized by gun-control groups since she voted against a plan to extend background checks for gun buyers.
The ads are running in Ayotte’s home state - New Hampshire.
Rubio’s fellow Floridian Jeb Bush, the state’s former governor and a brother to one former president and son to another, has not indicated whether he might run in 2016. But he has been politically active, calling for Congress to approve an immigration bill.
Potential 2016 contenders “are just beginning to stir,” Doug Gross, a Republican operative in Iowa who managed Romney’s campaign there in 2008, said of the potential 2016 contenders. “Some of these folks are starting to reach out to key folks.”
The early jockeying for 2016 reflects the uncertainty in a Republican Party that has been going through a generational and strategic shift since Romney, 66, lost in November.
Among the most prominent potential contenders, Cruz, Rubio, Ryan and Jindal are all in their early 40s. Walker is 45 and Paul and Christie, both 50, are the oldest.
The lack of an obvious front-runner for the upcoming presidential election is not unusual for the Democratic Party but is for Republicans, who for generations have typically had an experienced contender in line to run for the White House.
“There is no anointed person now, and that’s a change,” said Tom Rath, Republican strategist in New Hampshire who has advised Romney and former president George W. Bush.
The chaos in the Republican field contrasts sharply with the picture for Democrats, who continue to wait for a definitive sign from former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, the clear front-runner if she decides to jump into the race.
That has made Clinton a target of Republican arrows in Congress and online, attacks that have been fueled by their questions over how she handled the deadly attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, last September.
Republicans could be setting a new ideological course after years in which the party has gotten more conservative, even as the nation’s voters have become more diverse and likelier to support moderate and liberal Democrats.
Paul’s focus on civil liberties, Cruz’s brash, no-apologies conservatism and Christie’s moderation-with-an-edge approach could be among the key forces competing for attention in the Republican race, analysts say.
And then there is former Pennsylvania congressman Rick Santorum, who had some bright moments in the 2012 campaign as a conservative alternative to Romney.
The wide open field appears to have given new hope to Santorum, who frustrated Romney and some Republican leaders with his staunchly conservative statements on abortion and women.
Starting early this summer, Santorum, 55, will release a series of documentary-style videos online. Adviser John Brabender says the idea is to create original programming for people to share about Santorum, who won 11 states in the Republican primary season last year.
“We are putting together a narrative of the Rick Santorum story,” Brabender said. “It’s pretty interesting to see how close he came to the (2012) nomination. If he would have won Michigan, he would have been the nominee. One of our jobs is to sort of remind people of that.”
Santorum has also formed Patriot Voices, a political action committee that claims 400 local chapters. His advisers see these as Santorum “sleeper cells,” ready to act if he decides to run.
‘HE IS GOING TO DO WELL’
One potential stumbling block for Santorum: He would need to do well again in Iowa, where he won in 2012.
But Paul is increasingly popular in Iowa, the traditional starting gate for the presidential race. In Iowa and New Hampshire, Paul seems to be building on his father’s small but loyal campaign apparatus.
“He is going to do well here,” said Kevin Moore, 36, of Manchester, New Hampshire.
At Paul’s appearance in Concord, Moore sold T-shirts with Paul’s face and the slogan “Stand with Rand.” The slogan rocketed around the Internet after Paul’s 13-hour Senate speech in March to protest the administration’s use of military drones.
Paul’s speech in Concord made clear that he is seeking to prove that he can be more than a mascot for the Tea Party movement. It also showed that he might have some work to do.
He began with a defense of civil liberties, the type of speech that has made him popular across the political spectrum.
But the crowd wasn’t completely taken with Paul’s lessons on the U.S. Constitution. He stopped mid-speech and turned to a topic that unites Republicans: their dislike of Obama’s healthcare overhaul.
“With regard to...let’s see...,” Paul said. “Anybody in here a big fan of Obamacare?”
The audience laughed, and Paul was back on course.
Editing by David Lindsey and Claudia Parsons