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LAMBRO: Slouching toward 2016

Like it or not, the campaign is already upon us

The 2016 presidential marathon began this week when Hillary Rodham Clinton had a very visible, heavily promoted White House lunch with President Obama, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie threw a political punch at one of his potential rivals for the Republican nomination.

If there were any doubts that the former secretary of state plans to run for president, they were put to rest when Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama had lunch on the patio outside the Oval Office on Monday.

The White House photographer, Chuck Kennedy, took pictures of the tete-a-tete that were immediately beamed around the world, sending a clear message that the Clintons were gearing up to take back the presidency. Maybe Mr. Obama is ready to help them do that.

Some of the president's senior campaign aides already were working for Ready for Hillary, the super PAC for the former senator from New York. Mitch Stewart and Jeremy Bird, who managed Mr. Obama's field operations in 2008 and 2012, have joined her PAC operation.

The national news media also was preparing to promote her candidacy well in advance of the 2015-16 presidential election cycle. NBC announced over the weekend that its entertainment division is working on a miniseries about her political and personal life. CNN — long known as the Clinton News Network — announced that it has hired a top documentary filmmaker to produce a feature-length movie about Mrs. Clinton's political career. Talk about friends in high places.

The White House billed the luncheon as "chiefly social" and nothing more than two friends getting "a chance to catch up." It was so much more than that. Was Mr. Obama sending an early signal that he intends to support Mrs. Clinton 3 years from now?

There were signs he was doing that. The biggest emerged earlier this month when Mr. Obama's chief campaign strategist and closest political adviser, David Axelrod, seemed to be endorsing her for the nomination during an appearance on MSNBC's "Morning Joe." "I think Hillary Clinton probably will be the candidate," Mr. Axelrod said.

Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. also was said to be mulling a bid for the top job. However, there appeared to be relatively little support among the party's hierarchy for the former senator from Delaware (known for putting his foot in his mouth) whose own presidential bid fell flat in 2008.

Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Biden also met quietly this week at the vice president's official residence over breakfast. Did she tell him of her plans to run? Possibly.

Mrs. Clinton has been giving a lot of speeches across the country and being coy about her plans, but the real political question about her candidacy is what she will run on.

She was handed the job of secretary of state without any serious foreign-policy credentials of her own and had zero diplomatic successes during her entire four-year tenure. When she left office, the Middle East was a war zone, and the problems with Russia, China and Iran were worse than ever. The administration's relations with Israel were frosty at best.

What can she possibly say about the past six years of a weak, jobless economy? She was part of the Obama cabal who defended it or looked the other way. Insiders say she has her own ideas about economic policy, but she hasn't been willing to address the biggest failure of the Obama presidency.

Meantime, there's a large and growing field of potential Republican contenders who think a majority of voters will be fed up with this administration and the big-spending Democrats in 2016. It's shaping up to be the GOP's strongest field in years.

Mr. Christie, the tough-talking, political heavyweight who is cruising to re-election in heavily Democratic New Jersey in November, threw out the first punch in the Republican sweepstakes this week.

Troubled by the large number of House Republicans — 40 percent of the GOP conference — who voted to restrict how the National Security Agency traces phone records to combat terrorist plots against the United States, Mr. Christie lashed out at libertarians. He mentioned no names, but Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, a potential presidential rival, has been one of the NSA's sharpest critics.

Speaking as "a former prosecutor who was appointed by President George W. Bush" the day before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Mr. Christie said: "I just want us to be really cautious, because this strain of libertarianism that's going through both parties right now and making big headlines, I think, is a very dangerous thought."

Mr. Christie's remark was aimed squarely at Mr. Paul and was meant to stake out an early position as a strong defense hawk in the mold of Ronald Reagan in an era of mounting terrorist threats to America's homeland.

Mr. Christie's star is rising at a time when the GOP is looking for a fearless, no-nonsense leader who doesn't pull punches. His popularity cuts across party lines, yet he is one of the most sought-after Republican speakers. And he's clearly running in 2016.

Other Republican governors are weighing their chances at a time when Americans may be hungry to replace Mr. Obama with someone who is not a big-spending creature of Washington.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who has cut the state's budget and turned around its economy, is running high in the polls. If he wins re-election next year, he will be a strong contender from a pivotal state whose votes Republicans need if they are to take back the White House.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker became a conservative hero when he fought the state's powerful, public employee unions, overcame a recall election and cut the size of government. If he wins re-election next year, which now seems likely, he has bigger ambitions in mind.

Several freshman senators also are at the top of the presidential list, including Marco Rubio of Florida; Mr. Paul, who appeals to a large bloc of libertarian voters who have given the GOP a much-needed dose of energy; and Ted Cruz of Texas, who is winning rave reviews for a speaking tour of Iowa two weeks ago.

However, 2016 may be shaping up as the year of the outsider. Of the past 10 presidential elections, seven of the winners were governors.

When America gets into trouble, voters begin looking for a proven chief executive who doesn't need any on-the-job training.

Donald Lambro is a syndicated columnist and contributor to The Washington Times.

© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

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