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Honoring Presidents Day Reminds Us 2016 Isn't That Far Away

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

On this Presidents Day, we honor Presidents Washington and Lincoln, both of whom were born in February. It's also been extended to honor pretty much all other presidents past, present and future, a day of respect for the highest office in the land. Right now, there's a lot of interest in who will be taking that office next. And joining us to talk about that and the way we think about presidents is NPR's senior editor and correspondent Ron Elving. Good morning, Ron.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: So odd to think that the Republicans have so many candidates. I mean, we could get a list of 20 if you thought about it, when the Democrats may only have one. But that seems to be where we are.

ELVING: Yes, indeed. You know, Democrat Hillary Clinton is all but officially running and all but officially clearing the field of any real threats to her nomination at this point - situation is pretty much unprecedented for a Democrat who hasn't been president or vice president and hasn't even been on the ticket before. But right now she's dominating the field far more than she did when she ran eight years ago. And it looks like she might face only token opposition in the primaries.

MONTAGNE: And looking at the Republican side, you could call it an embarrassment of riches, if you could call it that.

(LAUGHTER)

ELVING: More candidates than you can shake a selfie stick at. A few have taken themselves out - most notably Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan. They have indicated - even though they were the two men on the 2012 ticket - that they're not running. But apart from that, the list just keeps getting longer. And in the polls at least, none of them is a huge favorite, Renee.

The national polls show former Florida Governor Jeb Bush is ahead, but only running in the mid-teens, not exactly a terribly high percentage for this stage. Brand-new NBC News/Marist College polls over the weekend showed him 1 of 4 candidates in the teens percentagewise in New Hampshire, and one of three in that same range in Iowa.

MONTAGNE: Is it unusual, Ron, for one party to have such a wide open field?

ELVING: It's highly unusual for Republicans. You have to go back at least to the 1970s to find anything that's comparable. You know, this is a party that usually has a pretty clear succession, even when there isn't an incumbent Republican president or vice president running. Mitt Romney was the frontrunner four years ago; he got the nomination. John McCain eight years ago - same deal. And the five Republican nominees before them - Bob Dole, both the Presidents Bush, Ronald Reagan, Gerald Ford - all pretty much favorites early on.

MONTAGNE: So how do you see the field sorting itself out?

ELVING: You know, media exposure matters a lot at this point. And that's why some of these gaffs and bad stories that are emerging about pretty much all the major candidates right now can be deadly. We've seen several promising candidacies blow up the year before the primaries even begin in the past. On the other hand, coming back from mistakes is how you get stronger. Debates can matter. Four years ago, eight years ago we had a lot of debates in the pre-primary period, in fact. But the Republican National Committee has greatly reduced the number of those, so they may not be that much of a factor this time around.

MONTAGNE: And money, which seems to be awfully important at this early stage.

ELVING: You know, at every stage the money is probably the most important part. But right now, we need to get a little further into the spring to see whose political committees in this preannouncement phase are really raising money. The general goal is to raise - are you ready for this now? - $80 million to $100 million this year...

MONTAGNE: Yikes.

ELVING: ...To be a serious player next year. And we know that Jeb Bush is on track to get there much faster than anyone else.

MONTAGNE: Well, we have about 15 seconds. Do you want to talk about towering figures enshrined in history and if we see any, you know, on the horizon now?

ELVING: Well, we remember presidents in hindsight as having been larger-than-life. And right now, maybe we don't see a lot of candidates who are. But at the beginning of the process of elevation, the candidates generally look like anything but larger-than-life. And that's the way it seemed with a lot of the people who became president in the past, probably the next president is in the field that we see now and growing every day.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Ron Elving. Thanks very much.

ELVING: Thank you, Renee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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