Presidential hopefuls kick off 2016 campaigns Marco Rubio announced his bid for president in Miami, Florida. At left, Hillary Clinton accounced via an online message (Reuters / Clinton Campaign)
Presidential hopefuls kick off 2016 campaigns
Lexile

In a presidential campaign, you only get one Opening Day.

For Ted Cruz, it was a simple speech on a college campus. No notes, no teleprompter. And no choice for the students required to be there. Rand Paul packed a hotel ballroom with loyalists and dazzled them with videos and goofy campaign swag.

Then there was Marco Rubio, who entered the race one day after Hillary Rodham Clinton announced her candidacy.

"No matter when you do it, you have the problem of butting against somebody else," said John Brabender, an adviser to another expected GOP candidate, Rick Santorum.

For what's expected to be a field of as many as two dozen candidates, the formal announcement sets the stage for what they hope will be a triumphant march to the White House. Most are carefully choreographed. Some struggle to draw attention. And each sends a signal to voters about whether they're watching a contender or just another soon-to-be has-been.

"It's the one part of the campaign, besides picking a vice president, that the candidate can totally control," said Scott Reed. He is a Republican strategist who served as Bob Dole's 1996 campaign manager. "They set the tone."

For Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants, that meant weeks of planning for a launch. His plan was to announce before a diverse audience of supporters at downtown Miami's iconic Freedom Tower, the first stop for tens of thousands of fleeing Cuban exiles during the 1960s and 1970s.

Clinton took a decidedly different approach. The lead-up to her campaign kickoff was a quiet one. There were no social media hints or off-the-record tips on where to show up with a satellite truck. She got in with an online message.

Rubio's aides were cognizant about the possibility that Clinton could upstage their meticulously scripted event. After some debate, Rubio and his team decided to stick with their plan. They figured a dueling announcement might actually work in their favor, allowing them to pocket an early fundraising boost by arguing he would be a strong rival to run against Clinton.

Side-by-side media coverage of the two candidates would draw a beneficial contrast, argued another top aide. The contrast would be between a woman they see as an aging icon from the 1990s and a dynamic Hispanic candidate.

That was Paul's thought, too. His team hoped Clinton would launch before their debut. That would allow him to immediately begin campaigning as though it were the general election. Instead, he found himself answering questions about his temperament after being unable to detail his policy positions in several contentious interviews.

While a strong launch hardly preordains campaign success, a smart debut can reap more than media buzz. Cruz raised $4 million in the eight days after his speech formally announcing his candidacy. He was the first to get in, too.

"They're going to come fast and furious," Brabender said. "At some point it's going to be increasingly hard to draw out a headline."

Deciding on timing isn't just about avoiding collisions with other candidates or positioning for fundraising. Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry made his debut in 2012 just six weeks after his team started preparing for his run.

Four years later, Perry has spent months visiting early primary states, boning up on policy and carefully plotting his entry into the race.

Yet even with enough time to plan, success isn't guaranteed. Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.'s campaign launch in 2011 sought the patriotic backdrop of the Statue of Liberty. It was held in the same Jersey City, N.J., park where President Ronald Reagan opened his 1980 general election campaign.

But the images of Huntsman were marred by a tour boat that passed by during his speech. And planes were buzzing overhead. His campaign never caught on with voters.

"Campaign launches can make or break a Presidential Campaign. Trust me!" his daughter, MSNBC host Abby Huntsman, recently wrote on Twitter. "How I wish we could redo that day for team Huntsman in 2012."

Critical thinking challenge: What is a soon-to-be has-been?

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