Donald Lambro

WASHINGTON - We're getting closer to the 2015-16 presidential election cycle, and for many White House aspirants, it's already begun in earnest.

The talk among Republicans, especially in the nation's capital, is about the early leaders in the GOP's presidential sweepstakes and who stands the best chance of beating Hillary Clinton.

There are many forecasts floating about, but here's one that seems certain right now: Republicans will nominate a governor who has had experience running a government, getting policies enacted in a divided state legislature, and leading.

If there is one lesson the voters have learned under the incompetent presidency of Barack Obama, it is that the job of chief executive requires a lot of training and experience. This is no job for a freshman legislator who has never run anything, but thinks he can run our country by just giving speeches.

We've had six presidents since the mid-1970s and four of them have been governors. It's a safe bet one of the major governors now grappling with the problems in their states will take the presidential oath of office in 2017.

And the GOP has a lot of gubernatorial talent to choose from.

Twenty-nine of the nation's 50 governors are Republicans, many from big states like Florida, Ohio, Texas, Wisconsin, Michigan and, of all places, New Jersey.

Which brings us to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie who many politicos see as the GOP's frontrunner, despite the political scandal behind the disastrous lane-closings that led to traffic jams on the George Washington bridge.

There are investigative hearings to come and ongoing law enforcement inquiries, too. But if none shows Christie had any role in that tawdry business, or knew anything at all about it, he remains a major contender with a strong, national following.

As chairman of the Republican Governors Association, he has plans to campaign across the country this year for his party's gubernatorial candidates, picking up IOUs and broadening his national political appeal.

But he's going to have a lot of political company on the campaign trail. The top tier of major challengers will be his fellow governors who are also testing the waters, polling voters and sizing up their chances in the party primaries.

In Ohio, Gov. John Kasich has presided over a much-improved economy, pushing the unemployment rate down two points and adding

125,000 jobs to the state's payrolls.

Kasich calls his state's recovery the "Ohio miracle," and a majority of the voters in this pivotal electoral state seem to approve of his policies. His job approval polls shot up to 52 percent late last year.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who is also seeking re-election this year, has taken a high-unemployment state and pounded its jobless rate down to 6.3 percent over his term.

Walker has become a folk hero in his party for surviving a union- funded recall election after enacting major reforms in government spending. Supporters say his agenda has broad, nationwide appeal among voters concerned about the federal government's crushing public debt.

Others have been mulling a presidential run, including Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Gov. Rick Perry of Texas who ran a disastrous campaign in the 2012 primaries but may try again.

But political handicappers like the Washington Post's Chris Cillizza, writing in Thursday's blog, said he still thinks Christie is "the front-runner for the Republican nomination despite his recent traffic troubles."

"Our case for Christie as front-runner -- or, maybe, more accurately first among almost-equals -- is built around the idea that there is no perfect/electable conservative in the race and that Christie has a decent chance of beating out Jindal, [Florida Sen.

Marco] Rubio and Walker in the battle to be the establishment candidate," Cillizza writes.

His reasoning: "Christie is the one who, at first glance, could most easily put together the tens (and probably hundreds) of millions of dollars needed to run real operations in a series of states in short order."

My own feeling right now is that the race for the GOP's nomination is very much wide open and it's way too early to talk about a front-runner. Especially someone who is under possible criminal investigation.

Moreover, the party still remains deeply divided among hard core, tea party activists, right of center conservatives, and establishment Republicans. That's still a reality in the GOP right now.

Nevertheless, despite Christie's media-driven reputation as a brash, some say bullying, figure, he has the ability to appeal to all of these groups in one way another. People across political lines are looking for a leader who can get things done, has a set of basic principles, and has a track record as a reformer.

Christie's career began as a tough-as-nails prosecutor in New Jersey where he put crooked political figures in jail from both parties. He won the governorship over a wealthy incumbent, who vastly outspent him, by promising to put the brakes on spending, cut taxes and improve the state's economy.

He took on the entrenched state employee unions and won major concessions. He hasn't gotten all he wanted, not by a long shot, but he's won a number of key battles.

He faced a Democrat-controlled legislature, but found a way to cut deals to enact his agenda. "Christie knows how to exploit power,"

says state Democratic Sen. Ronald Rice.

Even in the face of a "Bridge-gate" scandal, a Quinnipiac poll released Wednesday gave him a 55 percent approval score among New Jersey's voters.

Clearly, Christie is still a political force to be reckoned with, as his rivals will soon find out if he decides he's now ready to take on powerful special interests in Washington.


Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.