WASHINGTON -- The grueling political marathon for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination has begun, with three contenders out in front and everyone else far behind.
Former Florida governor Jeb Bush is said to have taken a slight lead in New Hampshire, where the first nominating primary will be held early next year. That will likely change in the coming months as voters start to focus on the larger field of nearly a dozen potential candidates and the agendas they'll be promoting to get America back on track and back to work.
But there's also reason to believe the field will winnow out rather quickly over the ensuing year, and the race will come down to three or so of the better-known and better-funded candidates in the homestretch.
In the end, this election cycle is going to be known as the year of the governors, candidates who will be touting their hands-on executive experience and a track record for running a state government and getting things done.
The American people, to their regret, experimented with the idea of putting an inexperienced, flashy orator in the White House simply on the basis of empty promises and soaring rhetoric.
The result has been the longest, weakest economic recovery since the 1930s, a mountain of deficits, debt and added taxes, unending bureaucratic scandals, and a more dangerous world that threatens our national security.
Yes, there are some very promising freshmen senators who, from the day they came to Washington, decided they were ready to run the country -- and someday they may be. But they're not ready to tackle the problems that afflict our government, let alone run the country.
Yet these men are ambitious and have nothing to lose by getting into the arena with the big players, perhaps to lay the groundwork for a future presidential bid. Well, more power to them.
But I'm going out on a limb to predict that Republicans are not going to nominate anyone from this freshmen pack -- not after our regrettable experience with Barack Obama. I hope we've learned our lesson.
Meantime, the race is on and, not surprisingly, Jeb Bush -- a two-term governor -- leads in the Granite State with 16 percent. He is followed by freshman Sen. Rand Paul with 13 percent, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker with 12 percent and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie with 10 percent, according to a new Bloomberg Politics/Saint Anselm New Hampshire poll.
A new NBC News/Marist poll in the state shows Bush with 18 percent support among Republican voters, Walker with 15 percent, Paul with 14 percent and Christie at 13 percent.
It's a different story in Iowa, a quirky caucus state where former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee is leading with 17 percent in a tight race with Bush, who draws 16 percent, followed by Walker with 15 percent, according to the NBC survey.
The nominating contest then races to South Carolina where favorite son Sen. Lindsey Graham is drawing 17 percent support, followed by Bush, 15 percent, Walker, 12 percent, and Huckabee and former neurosurgeon Ben Carson tied at 10 percent each.
But as important as these early contests may be, they haven't always been accurate predictors of who will be the eventual nominee.
In Iowa, for example, where social issues can dominate the political discussion, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, a leader in the right-to-life movement, came in first in 2012, though Mitt Romney went on to win the GOP nomination.
Similarly, Huckabee won Iowa with 34.4 percent of the vote in 2008, but never came close to winning his party's nod.
It looks like he's going to try again this year, though the influential, conservative Club for Growth has been putting out several blistering broadsides about Huckabee's habit of proposing one tax increase after another when he was governor.
Right now, there are at least 10 Republicans on the list of active and potential presidential aspirants, and that list will possibly grow in the next few months.
But based on the relatively weak polling numbers in the early caucus/primary state surveys, it's clear that the 2016 GOP presidential nomination is up for grabs in a very wide field of contenders.
A lot will depend on what the candidates say about the enormous challenges facing our nation, how they frame the issues that Americans care about most, and whether they can demonstrate a level of confidence that they are fully prepared -- based on their experience -- to handle the toughest job in the country.
It's instructive that Bush chose to deliver his first major campaign speech to the Detroit Economic Club, laying out issues that are still holding our economy back: weak job creation, anemic capital investment, falling incomes, fewer business start-ups and growing poverty.
He made it clear to business leaders earlier this month that this was the first of a series of speeches he intends to give on the economy in the months to come -- and that no other issue was more important to the future well-being and security of our country.
And Walker drew strong reviews from party activists late last month after his very well-received address at the Iowa Freedom Summit in Des Moines in an optimistic campaign pitch he calls "Our American Revival."
It will be a campaign that "encompasses the shared values that make our country great," he said, by "limiting the powers of the federal government to those defined in the Constitution while creating a leaner, more efficient, most effective and more accountable government to the American people."
These are messages that strike at the heart of what ails America: a lackluster economy held back by anti-growth, anti-job policies, and an obese, waste-ridden government that holds back a once-mighty nation hungering for a new birth of economic freedom and prosperity.
Americans are ready for a change in 2016. Let's hope they choose wisely and well.