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The GOP's 2016 Outlook: Mutually Assured Destruction

Most of the leading Republican presidential contenders face serious in-state rivals, blocking their path to the nomination.

For the next presidential election, Republicans boast a deep bench of prospective candidates across the country. But one of the party's biggest challenges is that too many of them hail from the same states—and could each knock out their in-state rival.

In Florida, former Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio each occupy the same establishment-friendly space with the GOP electorate. In Ohio, Gov. John Kasich and Sen. Rob Portman, both potential presidential candidates, are two of the party's most prominent moderates. In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker's ambitions haven't been curtailed by Paul Ryan's spot on the last presidential ticket. And in Texas, tea-party acolytes could be fighting between Gov. Rick Perry and Sen. Ted Cruz.

Meanwhile, the Democrats' front-running nominee from New York, Hillary Clinton, has already blocked the presidential pathway to numerous ambitious Empire State Democratic pols, from Gov. Andrew Cuomo to Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand.

"There's just no way you can have two candidates from the same state and not have it get quite tense, if not downright ugly," said former GOP Rep. Vin Weber, a senior Republican strategist. "In every zone, you end up competing."

He would know: Weber served as the chairman of former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty's PAC in 2011. That year, Pawlenty and Rep. Michele Bachmann both launched presidential runs and almost immediately attacked each other in an effort to draw attention in the crowded GOP primary. Pawlenty and Bachmann don't occupy the same ideological space within the GOP, but both campaigns had the feeling that neither could prosper while the other survived.

That's not the case with most of the 2016 home-state pairs, most of whom are ideologically similar to their in-state rivals.

In Florida, the relationship between two prospective candidates—Sen. Marco Rubio and former Gov. Jeb Bush—goes beyond calling the same state home. Rubio views Bush as a mentor, yet the senator has said he won't make a decision about entering the presidential race based on who else is running.

Brian Ballard, a Tallahassee-based lobbyist and a former Mitt Romney fundraiser, thinks it is unlikely Rubio would run if Bush is a candidate. And if Rubio and Bush were both to jump in the race, most Florida Republicans would defer to Bush, Ballard said, because they view 2016 as "his turn" to run.

"They're both realists, and I think if Jeb decides he's going to run and is progressing well into Florida, there's no oxygen in the room for two of them, and Jeb would be the dominant player between the two of them," Ballard said.

In Ohio, where Republicans are holding their convention, Kasich looked like an intriguing dark-horse presidential contender, especially since he's coasting to a second term in a perennial battleground state. But in late August, Sen. Rob Portman complicated the governor's path, visiting the first-in-the-nation primary state of New Hampshire. Portman, one of the most experienced prospective candidates, is now reportedly considering forming a presidential exploratory committee after the midterm elections.

With a reelection race on his hands, Kasich has not publicly stated whether he is considering a White House run.

Former Portman adviser Andrew Ciafardini downplayed the possibility of any potential conflict between the two Republicans, saying they have a good relationship and could bring different backgrounds to the table if they choose to run. He added that Portman and Kasich have different constituencies "that don't necessarily overlap."

Kasich spokesman Rob Nichols said that Portman should explore a presidential bid. "It would be great for Ohio," Nichols said. "We wish him luck."

Two of the potential contenders who have been among the most active on the pre-campaign trail in recent months hail from the Lone Star State. Both Rick Perry and Ted Cruz have made pilgrimages to early-voting states such as Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, campaigned for Republicans on the ballot this year, and become regulars on the Sunday shows.

Texas Republican Party Chairman Steve Munisteri, who believes Cruz and Perry are already running for president, even if they won't admit it, said they "could cannibalize each other's votes to some extent" because they are both well liked among the activist base of the party. But at the moment, Cruz "has a decided advantage" over Perry in Texas, Munisteri said.

"He's achieved rock-star status among the base within our state," Munisteri said of Cruz. "Perry's still very, very popular. But it's like two matinee idols. They still both do well at the box office, they're still very popular, but if one's a little newer to the scene, sometimes they'll sell more tickets."

Mark Miner, a spokesman for Perry's PAC, indicated that Cruz's decision regarding the 2016 presidential race won't have much of an impact on Perry as he weighs his next steps after he leaves the governor's mansion next year.

"It's a big state. They've both been successful. The governor has a proven track record of leadership here in this state."¦ The future will take care of itself," Miner said.

Meanwhile, in the close-knit GOP community in Wisconsin, two close friends could be on a collision course to run against each other. Paul Ryan, who has said he will make a decision about the presidential election next year, spent much of his August recess traveling around the country to promote his new memoir. Gov. Scott Walker, on the other hand, is fully occupied with a tough reelection fight but hasn't ruled out a future White House bid. (Walker also wrote a memoir last year, hinting at his national ambitions.)

"If you're running against somebody from your own state, yeah, they probably know you better and maybe that makes you friends, but it also means they are the most lethal critic," said Weber. "If somebody from your own state criticizes your performance in office, it's more damaging, because they presume to know you better."