Trail To The Chief: How To Become A 2016 Contender

How to Become a 2016 Contender Edition

You don’t have a backer with a billion dollars. You are nowhere in the polls. You have accomplishments and ideas you think are worthy of the presidency. Your friends think they are, too. So how do you get from obscurity to contenderhood? By making a virtue of your plight. In American politics, everyone claims to hate the establishment, so starting from outside the loop can be an advantage.

The patron saint of one-percenters -- candidates who start out with 1 percent of support but stick it out -- is Jimmy Carter, who won the White House by leveraging disgust at the sinkhole Washington had become under Richard Nixon. Carter was governor of Georgia, but, more importantly, he was a peanut farmer, former Navy engineer and a devout, abstemious Southern Baptist. He had a sunny smile, exuded innocent incorruptibility, and launched himself by becoming the first candidate to take the Iowa caucus seriously as a way to get national attention. Yes -- Carter gave us Iowa.

So far in modern times, it’s been the Democrats who, because of arcane, porous rules -- and because they are Democrats -- have produced most of these kinds of candidacies: Howard Dean, George McGovern, Jesse Jackson, Gary Hart, John Edwards, to name but a few. Recently the GOP, too, has been getting into the obscurity business with candidates like Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee. Now the whole “royal succession” habit of the GOP is under assault, as Jeb Bush is finding. And a whole new crop of one-percenters and one-percent-wannabes, including Lindsey Graham, Bobby Jindal, Carly Fiorina and Mike Huckabee 2.0, are looking to get in the game.

For all of these wannabes, here is the official, time-tested guide to becoming a contender -- and maybe even winning the whole thing.

1 PICK A FIGHT WITH THE FRONTRUNNERAs a general rule, you should be nice to members of your own party, but that doesn’t include the frontrunner -- and the more front the runner, the better. Pick an issue and attack without fear. But then you can’t back down. Or in other words, don’t be Tim Pawlenty. When the mild-mannered Minnesotan went after Mitt Romney in 2011 on "Meet the Press," reporters took note. But face-to-face on a debate stage, Pawlenty didn’t follow through. Pawlenty was polenta after that. Tim Pawlenty
2 FIELD AN EFFICIENT, UNIFIED, NO-LEAK TEAMRick Santorum had a small team packed into three trucks, and they worked wonders in Iowa, giving him real momentum without becoming known as a bunch of bumblers or grandstanders. Contrast that with Michele Bachmann's and Herman Cain's nightmare teams. On a larger scale, the same was true for Hillary Clinton's 2008 effort, which was as stable as the Austro-Hungarian Empire in its last days. Rick Santorum
3 HUMBLE ROOTSLog cabins are gone but the idea remains. You need a bio that puts you somehow in touch with the everyday struggles of average folks, so you can even use the word “folks.” Jeb Bush is a descendant of the Mayflower era, and his family roots are in Wall Street, but his wife, Columba, is the real deal: daughter of working-class, small-town Mexico. And if you are a patrician, note that being a brainy, dorky but lovable rich guy won’t work. Think Jon Huntsman, candidate of NPR. Jimmy Carter
4 SHOW AN UNEXPECTED 'WHO KNEW' DIMENSIONBeing obscure and feisty and log cabin-ish isn’t enough: you need something surprising in your message and your history. The first time he ran, Mike Huckabee emphasized his Baptist faith -- but also the fact that he was a rock 'n' roll bass guitar player. This time around, he is talking less about faith than secular economics. Who knew he could preach on that? Mike Huckabee
5 DON'T GET QUIRKYOnce you start to amass cash and support, beware of would-be advisers urging you to get fancy or quirky. Many of them will try to sell you on some weird high-concept ad campaign designed to get tongues wagging and the media hyperventilating. But beware: everyone loved that demon sheep ad and everyone talked about that time Herman Cain's campaign manager smoked a cigarette and that weird stuff Jon Huntsman was up to. Cain’s “999” plan was all too memorable. Herman Cain
6 BE LEAN AND MEAN IN THE DEBATESThe debate stage is one of the few times you can define yourself and the opponents, in combat, under the lights, on national TV. Make the most of it. Jump into dead air, insist you have a chance to speak and don't let the frontrunner get away with glibness. Rick Santorum punched his way from the side of the stage to the center using solely his debate performance -- displacing the many GOP flashes in the pan. Rick Santorum
7 DON'T DELAYIowa alone can’t get you elected, but skipping it altogether is usually deadly, and finishing out of the money almost always fatal. John McCain skipped/downplayed Iowa but still won in 2008. You are not John McCain. The case study to examine here is Rudy Giuliani, who thought he was such a big shot that he could skip Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina and still depend on a “Florida Firewall.” Ah, no. He was out of it before he ever officially got in it. Rudy Giuliani
8 UNDERSTAND THE MATH OF THE MACHINERYOne reason Barack Obama won in 2008: his team studied the party’s delegate-selection rules deeply -- obsessively -- and Team Hillary did not. Obama’s campaign manager, David Plouffe, focused on obscure Democratic primaries in red states, picking up few headlines but lots of delegates in those places. By the time Clinton figured out what was happening, it was too late. And then there are crucial votes AFTER the initial votes: county and statewide conventions at which some delegates are awarded. In 2012, Ron Paul's team did an excellent job of picking up these extra delegates after everyone had gone home from voting and the media had left town. Ron Paul
9 ENJOY THE FRIENDLY PRESS COVERAGE WHILE IT LASTSThe media loves an underdog, if for no other reason than conflict sells. Early on you will get smiles and nice profiles, and you will feel that reporters are your pals. They are not. If you are lucky and shrewd enough to rocket upward, they will be compelled to examine the weak points they hadn't bothered with before. In the early days of 2000, the press on board Sen. John McCain’s “Straight Talk Express” seemed part of the campaign team. But they bailed when some McCain supporters in South Carolina turned out to be neo-Confederates. So watch out, Bernie Sanders. You’re a charming crank now. If you get near the top, the Red-baiting will begin. John McCain
10 DESPITE THE ODDS, PLAN TO WINAs improbable as it might seem early on, prepare to catch the wave. If it comes, be ready to ride it. Gary Hart’s 1984 campaign was a classic example. Against enormous odds, he came within a hair's breadth of winning the New Hampshire primary against former Vice President Walter Mondale, the liberal, pro-labor establishment candidate of the Democrats. Hart was a Coloradan and seemed to have a Western swagger. But he was actually more comfortable in the back room than on the big stage. He didn’t quite know what had hit him in New Hampshire. If he had, he would have won. Gary Hart

Candidate Photos: Getty, Associated Press