Former Governors George Pataki of New York, Jim Gilmore of Virginia, and Bob Ehrlich of Maryland have been out of elected office for a combined 29 years. They have no devoted national followings, no networks of deep-pocketed financiers, not even radio or TV platforms with which to introduce themselves to voters beyond the borders of the states they once led. Pollsters in the early presidential primary states have asked voters what they think of some 16 other Republican politicians, but the names Pataki, Gilmore, and Ehrlich appear nowhere on the list. Yet all three men are spending this winter dropping in and out of Iowa and New Hampshire, greeting voters, making speeches, and searching for a plausible path to the presidency.

What on earth are they thinking?

It's a question that has been asked of each of them in some form or another in recent weeks, and one they'll probably confront several more times if they go ahead with White House bids. ("What are you, nuts?" is the version Ehrlich recalled in a recent interview.) Of course, any natural-born citizen who is at least 35 years old can run for president, and every four years dozens of ordinary people form campaign committees. But Pataki, Gilmore, and Ehrlich are not ordinary people; they are respected former governors of large states who are trying to recapture a spotlight that went dark years ago, eyeing a race that virtually no one thinks they stand a chance to win.

"Obviously, they’re extremely confident people," said a skeptical John Weaver, a veteran Republican consultant who has advised both frontrunners (John McCain in 2008) and long shots (McCain in 2000, and Jon Huntsman in 2012). "All of them, from Jeb Bush to Jim Gilmore, think they have a plan to move forward. Now unfortunately, only one of these paths ultimately will be achievable."

The 2016 campaign is, in Weaver's words, "as wide-open a race for the nomination that we’ve had since Wendell Wilkie secured it in 1940." That's one reason why the field of early contenders is so large. And there are several other likely candidates who last held office long ago. There's Florida's Jeb Bush, of course. Like Pataki and Ehrlich, he left the governor's mansion at the beginning of 2007. But with his family's presidential lineage and establishment support, he needs little introduction to voters across the country. Mike Huckabee hasn't been governor of Arkansas for eight years, but after winning the Iowa caucuses in 2008 and then hosting a Fox News show, he remains a force, especially among evangelicals. The same is true of Rick Santorum, who lost his Pennsylvania Senate seat in 2006 but ran a surprisingly strong campaign for president in 2012.

Pataki, Gilmore, and Ehrlich have none of that going for them. Of the three, only Gilmore has actually run for president before, and he dropped out of the 2008 race less than three months after formally announcing his candidacy, before receiving a single vote. With so many Republicans testing the waters, it's inevitable that several will decide to pass on the race. And as presidential campaigns have stretched into a nearly two-year obstacle course, a few more won't even make it to the 2016 calendar if they can't raise the money or build the support to be competitive.

Long-shot candidates aren't necessarily delusional; some contenders who recognize they aren't likely to win still run as a way to raise their national profile, whether to angle for a vice presidential nomination or a Cabinet post, or even to boost their business careers. There are also people like John Bolton, the conservative former U.N. ambassador, whose consideration of a White House bid in 2012 seemed more about making sure the threat of terrorism and a nuclear Iran didn't fade as a campaign issue. Of course, rare is the prospective candidate who admits they have no chance to win, and Pataki, Gilmore, Ehrlich are no exception.

Pataki was a familiar presence alongside Rudy Giuliani in the weeks after 9/11. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Pataki, a former three-term governor of New York who led the state during the 9/11 terrorist attacks, certainly has the resume to be a credible presidential contender. But his flirtation with a campaign has been mocked by the political establishment. He has done this twice before, in 2008 and 2012, only to back out right before the launch. In 2008, an even more prominent, not-too-conservative New Yorker, Rudy Giuliani, led the early polls and crowded Pataki out of the field. In 2012, there was Mitt Romney, another former northeastern governor who occupied a similar ideological space.

This time, Pataki told me, is different. "I think the need for the right leadership in America is more compelling than at virtually any time in my lifetime," he said. "The fact that my experience has given me the ability to run and change dramatically a very complex government leads me far more strongly than in the past to seriously look at running." As if to demonstrate that seriousness, he added that if it weren't for the legal restrictions placed on formally declared candidates, he might have offered an even more definitive statement about his plans.

Pataki seemed to object to being grouped in the same tier as Gilmore and Ehrlich, neither of whom served more than one term as governor. As for political types who think he's crazy to run after all these years away, the man who knocked Mario Cuomo out of office had a quick answer:

This is not the first time. When I ran for governor [in 1994], there was a very similar reaction from virtually everybody. Who is this guy? I had been a minority assemblyman from Peekskill, New York, and had been in the state senate probably four months when I started to actively pursue running for governor. But if you have the right ideas, the right passion, the ability to connect with people and work hard, the odds shouldn’t deter you.

In many ways, Pataki offers a message similar to that of other Republicans eyeing the White House, with a push for a smaller, less intrusive federal government on domestic issues, coupled with a more muscular response to the threat posed by the Islamic State. Riffing off the line that some Wall Street firms are "too big to fail," Pataki said: "Our government in Washington is too big to succeed, and we have to dramatically reduce the size of that government, the power of that government, the cost of that government." He is also pushing a reform proposal that would ban, for life, anyone who's ever served a day in Congress from registering as a lobbyist in Washington.

Gilmore's campaign for the 2008 GOP nomination lasted just a few months. (Elise Amendola/AP)

Gilmore, 65, served as governor of Virginia from 1998 to 2002 after a stint as the state's attorney general. His tenure as chairman of the Republican National Committee was cut short after just a year, however, and following his aborted presidential run in 2007 he turned his attention to Virginia's open Senate seat in 2008. But he fell well short there, too, and garnered just 34 percent of the vote against another former governor, Mark Warner.

In an interview, Gilmore pointed to the national security expertise he gained while heading a commission, both before and after 9/11, that assessed the risk of a domestic terrorist attack using weapons of mass destruction. Gilmore called out a likely GOP presidential candidate, Rand Paul, by linking his foreign policy views to President Obama's own lack of assertive international leadership. "The danger we see with Obama-Paul," he said, is "that you’re not going to shape events. You’re just going to sit quietly and let the world do what it wants to do." In addition to his repeated trips to Iowa, he has grabbed headlines by denouncing Obama's remarks on religion to the National Prayer Breakfast as "the most offensive I've ever heard a president make in my lifetime."

Talking in mid-January about the 2016 race, Gilmore scoffed at the emerging GOP field. "I think the public at this point may not decide that they want the flashiest name," he said. "They may want somebody who’s actually going to offer some solutions to the nation’s crises." And the international situation, he insisted, was indeed "a crisis." "Right now there isn’t anything much going on except a lot of loud, flamboyant discussion, reckless talk, and a few people that think they’re stars," Gilmore said. "And that’s just not good for the American people."

Yet the former Virginia governor wasn't quite ready to anoint himself the savior. "It’s far too soon to decide whether this is an appropriate thing for me to do," Gilmore said. "I’m not sitting here trying to tell The Atlantic that I’m the automatic guy that ought to be the nominee. We’re looking at this."

Ehrlich lost re-election as governor in 2006 and made a failed comeback bid in 2010. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

Bob Ehrlich is one of two former Maryland governors mulling a long-shot presidential campaign, and he isn't even the more famous of the two. That would be Martin O'Malley, the Democrat who ousted Ehrlich after a single term in 2006 and then defeated him again in 2010. Ehrlich said his thoughts about 2016 began with an invitation "out of the blue" from the New Hampshire Republican Party in September, and since then he's returned to the first-in-the-nation primary state another four or five times. "They like what they heard, so I keep being invited back," he told me. Like Gilmore, he doesn't think that his long absence from public office is "that big a deal."

"In fact," Ehrlich argued, "during a time when people are pretty viscerally anti-incumbent, it might be an advantage." As someone who won election in a blue state, part of his pitch is some blunt talk for the GOP, which, he says, needs to broaden its appeal. "We’ve proven that we can be a great regional party, and we’re really good at midterm elections," Ehrlich said, referring to the party's 2014 rout. "And throwing spitballs in the bleachers is a relatively easy thing to do. We won this election cycle without any agenda, quite frankly. We just said we’re not the other guy, and that was enough."

Ehrlich talks a lot about criminal justice reform, which he notes is an issue that was associated with him "before it got hot, before it became the purple issue." Now Rand Paul and Paul Ryan have picked up the mantle, pushing for changes in mandatory minimum sentencing and alternatives to incarceration for minor drug offenses. "We were doing this stuff in Maryland many years ago when nobody was talking about it and nobody was advocating for it," Ehrlich said.

On paper, Pataki, Gilmore, and Ehrlich may have just as much of a case for the presidency as most of the GOP contenders. After all, better-known names like Paul, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Scott Walker, and Chris Christie each have about the same amount of experience in their elective office. But in a campaign with so many fresh faces and bigger names, where is the path these ex-governors might take to the nomination, and what makes them think they could get there?

"I think they’ll have a hard time attracting top-flight volunteers and volunteer leadership, much less staff and people in the donor community," Weaver said. "That’s going to be the more difficult thing. They can believe in their own path, but how do they convince others to believe in it as well?"

Ehrlich, while conceding he was not close to making a decision on whether to run, argued that it's easier for lesser-known candidates to draw wider notice in the social media age, especially if you make a good impression. "People have no idea who I was when I entered the room, for the most part," he said of his trips to New Hampshire. "But they knew who I was when I left."

Weaver said he would tell Pataki, Gilmore, and Ehrlich to forgo the race, that "it's not doable, there's not a path, and the time is past."

"But stranger things have happened in this business," Weaver said. Then he paused. "Well, maybe not."