WASHINGTON • As the leading Republican candidates for the presidential nomination prepared to duke it out on the debate stage in Cleveland this week, a separate - even fiercer battle - was being played out off-stage.
So far, a record 16 candidates have stepped forward. Most are virtual unknowns outside of their home states. Only the top 10 candidates in opinion polls will make it to televised debates.
Those at risk of missing the cut-off have pulled out all the stops to try and improve their numbers. In today's climate, that meant a battle for attention fought using increasingly outrageous comments and stunts. Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee accused President Barack Obama of orchestrating a second Holocaust with the Iran deal; Texas Senator Ted Cruz called his own party's Senate majority leader a liar; Kentucky Senator Rand Paul set the US tax code on fire and South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham put his mobile phone in a blender.
The high number of candidates this time is due to three factors: The significant potential consolation prizes for the also-rans; easier access to funding; and a belief that they can win this year.
First, the rewards even of a losing bid are high. Put simply: If you want attention - and which aspiring politician does not - running for high office is just about the best, most cost-effective way to get it.
Becoming an official candidate gives one an instant national platform and an opportunity to build a national brand. Even a complete no-hoper can expect some airtime from the national news media - an obligatory interview, an appearance at a debate or live coverage of a launch event.
Once on the national platform, that brand recognition can be parlayed into advantage. Some successfully push the policies of the front runner closer to their own - look at how Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders is slowly pulling former secretary of state Hillary Clinton to the left in the Democratic race. Others may position themselves for a Cabinet position later .
The path from also-ran to the government or running mate is a well-trodden one in Washington: Mr Joe Biden ran for president in 2008 before becoming a vice-presidential nominee; Mr Jack Kemp went from candidate in 1988 to housing secretary before ending up as Mr Bob Dole's running mate in 1996; Mrs Clinton also faced off with Mr Obama and became secretary of state when the latter won.
At the very least, most former presidential candidates come away from a campaign with a larger audience for a potential book, higher speaking fees or even a slot on cable news. Mr Huckabee gave the 2008 Republican nominee John McCain a decent run for his money that year and gained a platform on Fox News. He dropped out of the race in March 2008 and premiered his TV show in September, two months before the presidential election.
But while the consolation of even a losing bid explains why many are prepared to throw their hats in the ring, it does not explain why so many are doing so this year.
For that, we have to look at the second factor: Funding.
A presidential campaign is estimated to cost US$1 billion (S$1.4 billion) - and nothing can kill a campaign like an empty war-chest. In 2010, a ruling by the Supreme Court removed limits on private political spending, making it easier now than ever to finance a campaign. With no limits on how much money they can raise from any one individual or corporation, a campaign can live on as long as there is a wealthy backer.
While in 2008, Mr Obama famously sustained his campaign on small donations from a large number of people, candidates can now get by with just one or a few big donors. In other words, popularity is not that important anymore to fund campaigns.
Professor Steven Conn of Miami University called the situation the "politics of plutocratic patrons".
"With the caps lifted on spending, any candidate who can find a wealthy patron can make a perfectly credible run at the nomination... The winners in this politics of plutocratic patrons are, naturally, candidates who would otherwise have no hope of being taken seriously but who have caught the fancy of some free-spending plutocrat," he wrote recently on the Huffington Post.
The 2012 candidacy of former House speaker Newt Gingrich is a good example of this effect. By all accounts, Mr Gingrich's campaign should have ended in March 2012. He was failing to get any sort of support outside the conservative south and fared poorly in a series of primaries in key states.Yet, thanks to periodic injections of funds from Las Vegas Sands chief Sheldon Adelson, his campaign limped along until May.
Similarly, most pundits say Florida Senator Marco Rubio - for all his promise - would not have been able to enter the race this year if not for his close relationship with billionaire car dealer Norman Braman. Mr Rubio is not personally wealthy enough to sustain his own campaign. As the challenger to his mentor and establishment favourite Jeb Bush, he lacks the support of traditional party donors.
A GOOD CHANCE
Just as important as money in triggering the rush is the belief on the part of many Republican candidates that this could very well be their year. This is due to several structural factors within the party.
One key factor is the lack of a strong front runner. Over at the Democratic Party, Mrs Clinton has dominated polls and is already being treated by the party as the inevitable nominee. That has likely kept credible Democratic candidates, including the likes of Vice-President Joe Biden, sitting on the sidelines. No point getting into a race when conditions are far from favourable.
The Republican field has no such juggernaut. The normal modus operandi of just picking whoever was the second best performer at the last cycle isn't working this year.
In 2008, the party accepted that Senator John McCain, who finished behind Mr George W. Bush in party polls eight years earlier, was the next man in line. In 2012, it became the turn of former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, who finished behind Senator McCain.
Former senator Rick Santorum - the runner-up behind Mr Romney - is receiving no such treatment. He does not have a strong supporter base in the party. Many dismissed his relative success in 2012 as simply a Romney protest vote.
None of the large slate of candidates has been able to capture a significant chunk of the Republican base, which is splintered into large ideological factions. This contrasts with the Democratic party, whose front runner can boast a nearly 40 percentage point lead over the second placed candidate. Among the Republicans, the margin between Mr Donald Trump and Mr Bush in second place is just 7 percentage points. Further down the ticket, it is even closer . The 17th to 20th places are separated by just 0.8 of a percentage point.
Republicans are also buoyed by a sense that whoever wins the nomination will have a better than even chance at the White House.
History is on Republicans' side. The Democrats have been in power two terms and will be defying the odds if they win a third. Since the end of World War II, there has been only one period when a party won three elections in a row - the Republicans, when Mr George H.W. Bush won in 1988 after Mr Ronald Reagan completed two terms in the White House. Any party locked out of the White House for eight years can run on a platform of change. The incumbents cannot.
TOO MANY CANDIDATES?
But the question for the Republican party now is whether having so many candidates helps or hinders its chances. Supporters say a crowded field yields stronger candidates, battle-hardened from a tough primary process. But there are signs that in the cut-throat competition for attention and media coverage, serious-minded candidates with good policy ideas lose out to those with noisier antics.
Being provocative seems to work. Part of Mr Trump's appeal is that he is brash, unfiltered and a maverick. How do you look away from a candidate who boasts unabashedly of his wealth;calls immigrants drug dealers and rapists; criticises the service of a war hero; has a lawyer who says marital rape is legal; and who gives out his opponents' mobile phone number from the podium?
That the Republican base is responding to his style should not be all that surprising.
Elections here are, after all, part politics, part theatre, and Mr Trump is going down a path of provocative entertainment previously taken by the party's 2008 vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin. Mrs Palin was as loose a cannon as Mr Trump is now and we have already seen how her presence in 2008 injected some energy into Senator McCain's then fading campaign, even if in the end it failed to block the huge wave of hope that propelled Mr Obama into office.
The danger to the Republican Party this election cycle is that all this craziness ruins the party image in the eyes of voters, before a candidate can be produced.
Amid all the chaos, only three - Mr Rubio, Mr Bush and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker - are assessed to have a reasonable chance of making it to the final stretch next November. Whichever one makes it through the primaries, he has to hope that the bloodbath the crowded field is causing toughens him without leaving lasting stains on the party brand.
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