I watched the debates last night with two questions in mind: Who would give Hillary Clinton a run for her money? And who would be a good and useful vice-presidential running mate?
Both lists are surprisingly short.
It's easy to name the would-be nominees who wouldn't have a chance against Clinton. Donald Trump's undoubted appeal to a sizable percentage of Republican voters would not be enough to carry him in a general election, especially when half the voters would be women. He would be swamped.
Rand Paul has a quirky attractiveness that is an acquired taste, and and not enough voters will have acquired it. Mike Huckabee will continue to be the darling of the evangelical right, but that's a niche position he now owns; he just reappears, as if from an underground crypt, every four years. Ben Carson has a good personality, a measured way of speaking and a gentle sense of humor, but he's only on the stage because he's a black man critical of President Obama; the Republican base loves that, but it's not enough to fill out a presidential profile.
Ted Cruz radiates anger -- he seems more angry at his own party and its leaders than he is at Clinton or President Obama -- and while anger plays well in the short run, in the long run it turns people off. Chris Christie has experience and a forthrightness of manner that is initially attractive, but his forthrightness too easily turns into bluster and bullying; a few rounds with Clinton would leave him gasping for breath like a beached whale. Scott Walker looks good, has done well in a blue state (as he never tires of saying), and is reasonably articulate, but he has an I'm-not-quite-sure-I-belong-here look on his face, and the two policy positions that set him somewhat apart (at least in the intensity with which he holds them) -- a desire to kill the labor movement and a willingness to let mothers die rather than allow them to abort -- would sink him; Clinton would be licking her lips.
That leaves John Kasich, Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush.
Kasich is from Ohio (always a key state), has been successful both as a congressman and a governor, possesses administrative, legislative, budgetary and defense expertise, and comes across as a firm conservative who is not crazy -- no small feat in the Republican landscape. With the right running mate, he could bring together a coalition of fiscal conservatives, ardent Christians, moderate Republicans (there are a few left) and independents, and that might be enough, especially if Clinton stumbles in a big way.
Rubio has the advantage of being young and pretty. If he were to appear with Clinton on a stage, the advantage would be his before either said a word. He also speaks well and seems to know his stuff. He can carry Florida and take away at least some of the Hispanic vote. Again, the selection of a running mate would be key.
Jeb Bush was a very successful Florida governor who could also carry his state; he has a passion for education reform that is undeniably authentic; he has a position on immigration policy that, suitably tweaked, could capture the middle. He has ties, through marriage, to the Hispanic community. He is tall and youthful looking, but he is not young, so he has the aura of maturity. The "dynasty" problem would go away if he ran against Clinton, as it would for her if she ran against him.
Now for the vice-presidential slot. Rubio is everyone's favorite running mate, and he would be Bush's if you could have a ticket made up of two politicians from the same state. Bush isn't going to be anyone's running mate; he's already too big for that, and, besides, a Bush as a vice-presidential candidate would seem to take us back to 1980. Kasich fits well with both men. If he can carry Ohio and the candidate at the top of the ticket can carry Florida, then the electoral map already looks promising for the Republicans.
A case can also be made for Carly Fiorina, who within seconds of the "undercard" debate's conclusion was declared the big winner. Fiorina is an experienced business executive who is well-versed in the various technologies that increasingly dominate our lives. She is of course also a woman, but she's the wrong kind of woman to offset Hillary Clinton, for if one criticism of Clinton is that she is cold, calculating and a little mean, Fiorina is colder, more calculating and meaner; she'd make Clinton look warm and cuddly.
And as for the other possibilities: The candidates who wouldn't fly at the top of the ticket bring the same liabilities to the second spot, and these also-rans on the JV team bring little to the table.
Bobby Jindal looks like a gnome and doesn't even inspire confidence in his own state, where the president's approval rating now surpasses his own. Gilmore and Pataki seem to be there because they have nothing better to do. Santorum seems to be running for the Harold Stassen Chair of Perpetual Candidacy. Rick Perry is improving, but not enough to take a chance on. And if you want to capture the constituency eager to go to war tomorrow, Lindsey Graham is your man.
And so it's either Rubio-Kasich, Kasich-Rubio, or Bush-Kasich (or perhaps Senator Portman); and in the event of any of those Republican tickets, it will be Clinton-Sherrod Brown.
And the result? A nail-biter.
Stanley Fish is the Davidson-Kahn Distinguished University Professor and Professor of Law at Florida International University, and the Floersheimer Distinguished Visiting Professor of Law at Cardozo Law School.