Nothing much is going on right now in the 2016 presidential campaign–unless you’re a Republican political junkie, in which case every day is Christmas or, perhaps, Halloween. Did you know that Donald Trump might actually run this time, instead of using our nation’s highest office to promote his reality-TV show? Or that the very former governor of New York, George Pataki, thinks he’s a candidate? Are you tremendously relieved that the GOP’s most persistent Dr. Strangelove–former U.N. ambassador John Bolton–has taken his hat out of the ring? I sure am. But that leaves 15 or more candidates either in it or circling. The great state of Iowa, which had a dozen wannabes speak at its annual Lincoln Day dinner on May 16, may lose its corn crop in the explosion of hot air. Given that a column is insufficient space to introduce you to the entire mob, here are some observations from a weekend in Iowa:
Jeb Bush, son and brother of other Bushes, is the Republican default position–if not quite the favorite to win. He is conducting a major thought experiment. It involves the proposition that a conservative who is not suffering from red-meat poisoning can win the Republican nomination. Bush has had tough times in recent weeks, mangling answers to inevitable questions like whether he would have gone to war in Iraq, but I watched him handle all sorts of questions at a town-hall meeting in Dubuque, and he did so with intelligence, patience–in the case of one persistent questioner who seemed to believe that the Gates Foundation was intent on wrecking the American education system–and fluency, including casual humor. He will spend the next year trying to convince Republicans that “he’s not so bad” and hope that, in the end, his opponents will seem worse.
Marco Rubio, the Senator from Florida, wasn’t in Iowa over the weekend, but he is the sort of guy Republicans would love to nominate. I suspect he may prove to be Bush’s most formidable opponent; next March 15, he and Bush will joust in Florida’s winner-take-all primary, and the loser will likely be eliminated. Rubio seems far more polished now than the water-gulping ninny who flubbed the Republican response to the State of the Union address in 2013. He seems to have done a lot of homework on the issues, especially foreign policy. A few days before the Lincoln dinner, he gave a very polished performance before the Council on Foreign Relations in New York City. His positions were stalwart neoconservative and, in some ways, nonsensical: Why on earth do we need more troops, aside from drone jockeys, cyberwarriors and special operators, in a world where set-piece battles have become obsolete? But he was quick. When the moderator, Charlie Rose, mentioned that Cuba’s Raúl Castro had joked that he was considering becoming a Roman Catholic again, Rubio said, “That’s gonna be a pretty long confession.”
Three other candidates impressed me in Iowa, for different reasons. One was Carly Fiorina, the former CEO of Hewlett-Packard, spectacularly defenestrated by her board. I’ve seen her speak several times now, and she more than holds her own in this crowd. She has a clipped, clear, efficient style, and more than any other candidate in the race, she really lays the lumber to Hillary Clinton. It should also be noted that Carleton Fiorina is a woman. She wore a dress to the dinner and addressed the women in the audience directly. A guy had recently told her that a woman was hormonally inappropriate for the Oval Office: “Can anyone think for a single instant that a man’s judgment was clouded by his hormones, including in the Oval Office?”
Unfortunately, Fiorina’s foreign policy appears to be as testosterone-addled as that of most of the other candidates in her party. The one exception is Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, who sounded unlike any of the other candidates in Des Moines, concentrating on his civil-libertarian opposition to the Patriot Act, which he may filibuster again. And while he stands with the others when it comes to economic issues, he does not brandish his talons when it comes to foreign policy–except against the warmakers. “Someone needs to ask Hillary Clinton–if she ever takes any questions–was it a good idea to topple Gaddafi in Libya?” Paul said. “I think it’s a disaster.”
And finally there is Lindsey Graham, who, till now, has been best known as an appendage of John McCain’s, flanking him at warmongering press conferences. The thing about Graham is that he’s a happy–no, hilarious–warrior. “The more you drink, the better I sound,” he told the Iowans, “so keep drinking.” He favors immigration reform, working with Democrats and calling drones to kill American jihadis. I suspect he won’t get lost onstage when the debates start.
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This appears in the June 01, 2015 issue of TIME.