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2016 hopefuls shape their images

Would-be GOP candidates used the shutdown to position themselves.
/ Source: MSNBC TV

Would-be GOP candidates used the shutdown to position themselves.

The government shutdown is over and Republicans are left to sort through the political debris.

While many GOP leaders are lamenting the damage that’s been done to their party (and hoping it's only temporary), 2016 hopefuls are scrambling to shape the narrative of how they handled the fiasco--especially ones who had to take the tough votes.

The primaries may be years away but impressions become set early. Listen to the would-be candidates' rhetoric and look at their positions, and you'll see the outlines of each man's "story" beginning to emerge. 

Rand Paul: The Reboot

The Kentucky senator was one of the Tea Party originals. His last name is royal in conservative and libertarian circles, and he’s a master fundraiser and proven underdog, overcoming a tough primary and general election to win his Senate seat in 2010.

But while Paul voted to oppose the fiscal compromise eventually reached, he was quieter than many of his colleagues about it.

In fact, many GOP insiders have noted a very different tone coming from the Kentuckian over the past few weeks. While Paul did eventually join Cruz for his not-really-a-filibuster, NBC reported that was after initial resistance. And the media coverage between the two senators’ speech was vastly different--Paul’s 13-hour speech about the domestic use of drones actually drew attention to an overlooked issue: he got his concerns addressed and didn't endure the mockery that Cruz's faux-filibuster attracted. 

On Monday, as a deal was being brokered in the Senate, Paul kept a lower profile than Cruz. Trying to sneak into an elevator away from reporters, Paul would say only that it was time for an agreement to open up the government. He voted against the final outcome, but his vote wasn’t needed by the GOP anyway, and his tone and undramatic demeanor are likely to be more memorable than his “Nay.”

“The people I’ve talked to noticed” the difference, Republican strategist Chip Saltsman, who managed Mike Huckabee’s 2008 presidential campaign, told

“He sounded reasonable,” said Saltsman. “It was shockingly politically astute.”

Paul may be the best test of whether a nominee can successfully toe the line between the party’s warring factions. But Paul also has to prove that he’s a broadly electable candidate--something his father was never able to do.

Paul Ryan: The Insider’s Balancing Act

The former vice presidential candidate’s ascent wasn’t through conservative radio or cable news; it came from tedious work in Congress that earned him cred inside the Republican conference.

So while his vote against a budget compromise Wednesday night may have looked like he was going rogue on GOP leadership, there may be something more going on.

Ryan needs to maintain his sway inside the House, especially now that he’s on the committee created to tackle larger entitlement and budget issues--and to have clout, he needs to be able to negotiate with the GOP's far right.

He didn’t mention Obamacare in an Op-ed he wrote in the Wall Street Journal during the shutdown, to the ire of conservatives. But he tried to maintain his stance as an insider budget wonk.

“Today’s legislation won’t help us reduce our fast-growing debt,’’ Ryan told the Wall Street Journal after the vote. “In my judgment, this isn’t a breakthrough. We’re just kicking the can down the road.’’

Ted Cruz: The New Reality Star

Cruz made himself the loudest, and often loneliest, voice in the Senate pushing to defund Obamacare--no matter what party elders or political reality might have told him to the contrary.

Cameras covered his speech railing against the final deal (ignoring Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who spoke at the same time). The Texas senator's crusade has padded his coffers and added to his email lists. In the eyes of the faithful, he didn’t back down and was the driving force behind the shutdown--so much so, that the fate of a deal on Wednesday largely rested on whether or not he would block the bill. 

Cruz parlayed his leadership role in the shutdown into a convincing win at last week’s Values Voters Summit straw poll.

Cruz is the Tea Party's current folk hero. But the biggest effect of his meteoric rise may be its impact on other potential candidates--including Marco Rubio, Paul and even Ryan.

Rightwing favorites in the 2012 primary cycle had their moments of glory too, and then quickly faded. Michele Bachmann. Herman Cain. Neither lasted far into the campaign season, but each successive hardline darling pushed Mitt Romney further to the right, making it impossible for him to tack center early enough, or believably enough, to win the general election. Cruz, even three years away from Election Day, could well do the same--not just to White House hopefuls, but even other candidates seeking his endorsement. Already in the Kansas Senate primary this week, Milton Wolf (who happens to be Obama’s second cousin) blasted out an email comparing himself to Cruz in his uphill primary fight against Sen. Pat Roberts.

Marco Rubio: The Cautious Conservative

Like Ryan, Rubio didn't make Obamacare his central pitch in the budget showdown. That may save him--or undo him.

He voted against the Reid-McConnell compromise, but his statement slamming the deal as doing “nothing to provide working-class Americans even one shred of relief from Obamacare's harmful effects” was far less bombastic than Cruz’s tirade.

Rubio, like Ryan, was conspicuously absent from the larger debate over government funding. Some GOP observers speculate that after a bruising immigration fight, where Rubio was hardly rewarded for his risky push for legalization, he may be hesitant to come out with guns blazing again.

Rubio needs to position himself as a viable, if less visible, alternative to Cruz. And if he’s made immigration the issue he’s willing to gamble on, taking a quieter approach on the shutdown may have been an astute calculation--especially if he realized that Cruz was leading the GOP into battle without an exit strategy.

Instead, Rubio’s plan appears to be banking on the health care law’s failure--a position which many Republicans wish the party had stuck to, noting both publicly and privately that if the shutdown hadn’t been dominating headlines, the floundering rollout of the health care exchanges would have attracted far more media attention.

“By...February, March, April, and May of next year,” Rubio told Fox News’ Sean Hannity, “the realities of the law are going to begin to impact people….There is going to be an all-out revolt in this country over that. And that is….the moment to absolutely act, and say we are going to get rid of this law and then look for opportunities in the future to replace it.”

Florida Republican strategist Rick Wilson said wise candidates recognized that going gung-ho along with Cruz, devoid of any plan, was unwise.

“Even for Marco, I think some of the Senate politics that got wrapped up in immigration were cautionary,” said the GOP consultant. “With a lot of the things that happened during the immigration fight from both his left and right flank, anyone would look at this and say not everybody around the table is completely serious.”

“It’s natural to want to gravitate toward having a plan and a strategy -- a well-thought out path to victory,” added Wilson.

The Outsiders

All the Washington squabbling shows why there’s good reason that Obama was the first successful presidential nominee to come directly from the Senate since Kennedy. And with their DC colleagues in turmoil, Republican governors have been more than happy to point out that they’re the grownups in the party--swinging a huge door wide open in 2016 for New Jersey’s Chris Christie, Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal or Wisconsin’s Scott Walker.

“Our governors in every state capitol work with legislators across party lines–we don’t always agree with them, but we find ways to reach common ground and move our states forward,” Jindal, the head of the Republican Governors Association, told NBC earlier this month, unveiling a new initiative to highlight GOP governors as the people who are "driving America's comeback," as their ad says. The day after the shutdown was resolved, Jindal announced he was starting a new non-profit to help Republicans shake their image as "the party of no,” as he described them after Romney's loss.

Christie, the most moderate of the bunch--possibly the most formidable in a general election but vulnerable in a GOP primary--may have put it the most bluntly last week.

"If I was in the Senate right now, I’d kill myself."