Hugh Hewitt

Hugh Hewitt

The first third of the year has ended, and it is not too soon to size up the next generation of Republican presidential hopefuls. Although much of the media’s glare has turned on a new president, five senior Republicans bear watching as they step into the multiplayer contest that will decide who can lead the Republican Party and, potentially, the country.

Here is how I currently understand “Season 1: The Hunt for Red November.”

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has used his time well. He was the target of an ill-constructed piece from “60 Minutes,” which, in GOP activist circles, is the equivalent of winning the lottery. He added super consultant Phil Cox to run his gubernatorial reelection effort and has made a name for himself among Republicans for resisting pressure to shut down the economy or force mask mandates on a weary population. When “Ruthless,” a popular podcast among younger GOP activists, routinely refers to the “Free State of Florida,” the premium paid to DeSantis’ stock is not trivial.

The pair of “formers” — former secretary of state Mike Pompeo and former New Jersey governor Chris Christie — both have niches on television networks that give them visibility. Pompeo benefits from appearing regularly on Fox News, where many of 2024’s primary voters spend their television time. That’s less the case for Christie, a semiregular on ABC’s “This Week” show, though the New Jersey brawler has learned the benefit of sparking it up onstage. Both have deep experience at a variety of government jobs and are expected to run hard.

Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas, deftly turned aside a cheap attack on his Ranger credential, striking a blow against the website Salon and other media and reminding the Republican faithful that DeSantis isn’t the only veteran of the Iraq War in the hunt. Cotton negotiated a high-visibility seat on the Senate Judiciary Committee. That — along with his perches on the Senate Armed Services and the Senate Intelligence committees — is a reminder that he will be a serious and well-versed contender.

And then, just last week, Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina delivered a beautifully written response to President Joe Biden’s address to Congress. When that was followed by an avalanche of hostility and invective from the left for his daring to be Black, persuasive and Republican, Scott jumped into Tier 1.

Scott grabbed what every GOP hopeful needs most: audience. Audience for support, for buzz, for the buckets of money needed to build a network and an operation. Only one or two will survive until the convention in 2024 (which should be in Atlanta, where voting has been reformed and a collision with woke corporate America would be welcome).

These five men have made the most of 2021 so far, but there will be others. Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott of Florida, Josh Hawley of Missouri and Ben Sasse of Nebraska, Gov. Kristi Noem of South Dakota, former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, and perhaps a private-sector surprise such as investor Peter Thiel or a media-savvy outsider such as former ambassador Richard Grenell: All will flood the zone if former president Donald Trump stays retired, and perhaps even if he does not.

It’s still early in the first quarter of a long game, but it’s starting to take shape.

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— Hugh Hewitt is host of a nationally syndicated radio show and author of 14 books including “The Fourth Way: The Conservative Playbook for a Lasting GOP Majority.” He is also a political analyst for NBC, president of the Nixon Foundation and a professor of law at Chapman University Law School, where he has taught constitutional law since 1996.