TAMPA, Fla. - As Republicans gather here this week to steel for their hopeful bid to make Mitt Romney the 45th president of the United States, some skeptical conservatives are beginning to size up who -- Jeb Bush, Rep. Paul Ryan or Gov. Chris Christie -- should be the GOP standard bearer in 2016 if President Obama beats Romney.
"We have a very deep bench of new-generation leaders if Romney loses," said a key conservative leader. "One thing is for sure. I doubt anybody will question the conservative credentials of our next candidate" as many conservatives have Romney, he added.
Polls show the presidential race tied, and Romney is expected to get a nice convention bounce out of Tampa. But the contest is expected to be a nail biter until the end, giving some Republicans cause to consider a Plan B if the former Massachusetts governor loses.
Some conservatives interviewed said that Ryan would top the list of potential GOP candidates because he is Romney's running mate and because his budget plan is the basis of the Republican Party platform. Plus, said GOP strategist Ron Bonjean, "Ryan reenergized the Romney campaign when they needed it most."
Christie would need to win reelection, but he has been given the prominent role as keynote speaker at the GOP convention, a slot from which some have gone on to become presidential nominees from both parties.
And Bush has been a long-time favorite of conservatives, but sidelined because of the unpopularity of his brother. But 2016 comes seven years after Bush left office, and conservatives feel that will be enough time to heal the wounds, though he says he isn't interested in the job.
Pollster John Zogby noted that the Republicans many heavyweights to choose from and might use the 2016 race to decide if it is a moderate or conservative party. "The party still has to settle on whether it is the conservative party or has a big tent. Look for Rick Santorum to try. Christie and Ryan are clearly in the mix. Perhaps Jeb Bush can try and his candidacy would make a lot of sense," he told Secrets.
But as the long list of governors signed up to speak at the GOP convention shows, Zogby said that there are many who might want in, such as Ohio Gov. John Kasich and former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels.