Have Republicans wised up about 2016?

Story highlights

  • Top Republicans are looking beyond just revving up the party base for 2016
  • Gloria Borger: If they ditch extreme rhetoric in primaries, they could be more formidable contenders

(CNN) Something important happened this week in the 2016 GOP primary contest. (Yes, as we say at CNN, it's really "Happening Now.") In case you're not glued to the candidates' stump appearances quite yet, allow me to parse their words for you.

Mitt Romney, clearly contemplating a third run for the presidency, told an audience that the Republican Party has "got to stop thinking so much about the primary and start making sure we have people that support us in the general election."
Gloria Borger
Sound familiar? Well, another all-but-certain GOP contender, Jeb Bush, similarly mused aloud last month that the next GOP nominee needs to be willing to "lose the primary to win the general (election) without violating your own principles."
    Bush was talking about Romney's 2012 problem. Romney was also talking about Romney's 2012 problem. (Can you say "self-deportation"?)
    Turns out that at least two GOP candidates have figured it out: Pandering to the more conservative Republican base may be a great short-term strategy. But long-term, not so much.
    All of which keeps hope alive that the GOP primary won't be the slapstick of yesteryear. (Herman Cain's "999" economic plan? Michele Bachmann's HPV-vaccines-cause-"mental retardation"?) You betcha there are bound to be the perennial wannabes toying with a race to stay relevant and in-demand on the speech circuit. And yes, the crop will no doubt harvest a bunch of ideologues glued to whatever orthodoxy works for them.
    After all, who can resist the tug of a race in which there's an open Oval Office and a party without an obvious front-runner? And a Democratic presumptive nominee they believe is eminently beatable? Hardly anyone, it seems.
    But consider this: The Republicans have more to offer this time around. While the Democratic Party below the presidential level has been hollowed out to a large degree since 2008, the GOP has had huge success. Not just in Congress, but in the states. Since Barack Obama was elected in 2008, there are nine more Republican governors.
    So, it's no surprise that the potential 2016 field is flush with executive experience. The GOP has a large group of governors and former governors who are eyeing the race (Scott Walker of Wisconsin, John Kasich of Ohio, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, Bush of Florida, Chris Christie of New Jersey, Romney of Massachusetts, Rick Perry of Texas, to name a bunch.) After two terms of a president who entered office with about zero executive experience, it's a good credential to have on the resume. And it's a seller's market.
    It's a real problem for the one-term senatorial contenders like Rand Paul and Marco Rubio, but some of them bring something else to the table: actual ideas. (Rand Paul on criminal justice reform. Marco Rubio on income inequality.) Yes, the party is in the middle of an intramural fight about its future direction. But even that may provide some hope that the usual dynamic of the GOP primary contest — the lunge to the right — could be upended by a new paradigm or at least a broader tent. In other words, inspire some new primary voters. Imagine that.
    All this plays out, of course, as the Democrats try to decide when Hillary Clinton should make her candidate debut: This spring? This summer? Perhaps at the first hint of fall in the air? After all, she has no serious primary challenger on the horizon, so why argue with yourself— or pesky Republicans, for that matter?
    I get it. But this isn't 2012. If some Republicans are willing to "lose the primary," they're getting serious. And the campaign is here, with her or without her.
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