With just over a month until the Iowa caucuses, the Republican nomination field is taking clearer form. Of the original 17 candidates, only 4 can be said to remain in top contention: Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Ben Carson.
What to make of these candidates, and what does their preeminence tell us about the Republican party as it heads into the presidential election year?
Of the top four, only Carson is following a well-worn path. While his personal story is unique, his appeal is traditional. The early date of the Iowa caucuses has long meant that candidates with a strong connection to evangelical Christians endeavor to use Iowa as a springboard to the nomination. Pat Robertson in 1988, Alan Keyes in 1996, Gary Bauer in 2000, Mike Huckabee in 2008, and Rick Santorum in 2012 all tried this strategy. Carson is trying it too.
The remaining candidates look remarkably different from what we have seen in the past. The one most closely resembling a traditional Republican nominee is Jeb Bush, who started in first place, but now languishes at just 4 percent in national polls. The real contenders—Trump, Cruz, and Rubio—can be thought of as three variants of Tea Party candidate.
The term "Tea Party" was grossly overused in its heyday, but it hasn't quite outlived its usefulness. The Tea Party was a challenge to business-as-usual politics—especially Republican business as usual in Washington. The Trump, Cruz, and Rubio candidacies can be said to represent different aspects of the movement, and each brings upsides and downsides for voters to consider.
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