The 2016 Republican presidential field could be bigger than any in recent memory – thanks to a growing second tier of potential contenders.
While several prominent politicians already have insinuated themselves into the mix, from Ted Cruz to Rand Paul to Chris Christie to Jeb Bush, a number of under-the-radar names are now flirting with a 2016 candidacy.
They may be the long shots, but could shake things up -- by playing the spoiler in key primaries, positioning themselves as a potential running mate for the eventual nominee or even becoming a dark horse competitor in the final stage.
"It is definitely a new phenomenon," Ronald Reagan biographer Craig Shirley said of the increasingly crowded fields. (The 2008 and 2012 GOP contests were a political demolition derby.) "I don't think this has anything to do with the growth of the United States, you just have more people who are convinced they are qualified to run for president."
Some potential candidates are hardly new to the game, including Rick Santorum and others.
Longtime Republican pollster Glen Bolger said the lure is especially strong for pols who have inhabited that spotlight. "They figure, Barack Obama can come out of nowhere," he said, referring to the president's leap from one-term senator to president. "They think, 'I can be different, I can break the mold and get the nomination'."
He added: "[But] it's like catching lightning in a bottle. I won't say it can't be done, but that's what a lot of these candidates are relying on."
Here's a look at a few of them:
1. George Pataki
George Pataki, the three-term former New York governor, has said he's weighing a 2016 run, and he seems to be taking the idea seriously. He launched a super PAC called Americans for Real Change, which produced an ad this fall timed with appearances in New Hampshire. His message: fiscal responsibility, with a populist twist.
"Big government benefits the rich and powerful. They can afford to play the game -- you can't," he says in his televised ad. "It's time for a new America, with much smaller federal government. Washington can't run the economy, and shouldn't try to run our lives."
Asked about a possible bid, Pataki told Fox Business Network in November: "I'm thinking about it."
Some analysts consider him a long shot, however. Once a shining light of the Republican revolution in 1994 -- the first year he was elected governor of New York -- his support for gun control and gay rights could cause problems with the conservative base.
"It helps to be known, it helps to be supported by some key element of the base and it helps to raise money," Bolger said. "I'm not sure he fits in any of those categories, much less all three."
2. Rick Santorum
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum remains popular among social conservatives, particularly evangelicals who support his position on abortion issues. And during the crowded 2012 race, he enjoyed a brief period as the "it" candidate.
So would he run again?
After The Washington Post in early December declared that he, indeed, would run, Santorum told Fox News the report might be "hyperbole."
But he acknowledged he's thinking about it.
"No announcements, but we're working at it right now and we are calling people in those [early primary] states ... and we'll make a decision sometime later next year," Santorum said.
The former senator is a divisive figure in politics, but said a "blessing" of his career is that "we've always been underestimated."
Meanwhile, Santorum continues to stay visible in the media as a voice on conservative issues, and has been making the rounds at conservative gatherings, including the Values Voter Summit, where he came in fourth in the straw poll (Cruz won with 25 percent).
According to the Des Moines Register, which is tracking candidate visits to Iowa, Santorum has been there nine times for events since 2012.
3. Carly Fiorina
Ex-Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina has maintained a political profile since leaving HP. She worked on John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign and ran for Senate, unsuccessfully, in California in 2010.
The Hoover Institution's Bill Whalen noted in a recent op-ed that Fiorina is so far the only woman showing an interest in the GOP nomination. He also called her the only potential candidate with "serious business experience."
She hasn't said she is in, but Fiorina is actively exploring the possibility, according to The Washington Post, which reported she has been talking privately with potential donors and recruiting staffers and grassroots activists.
On Friday, Republican National Committee spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores also announced she was going to work for Fiorina's Unlocking Potential PAC. Flores previously did consulting work for Mitt Romney in 2012.
Fiorina made a stop in the New Hampshire on Dec. 5, delivering remarks at a breakfast hosted by the state's Independent Business Council. She touched on her role as a woman in Republican politics. "Parties need to look as diverse as the nation and speak to people about issues that matter to them," she said.
She, too, hit an anti-big government message. "People who succeeded in bureaucracies want to preserve status quo because it benefits them," she said. "I could be talking about Washington or HP ... we need to think about reform in Washington, which is desperately needed in a systematic way."
4. Bobby Jindal
The son of Indian immigrants, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal was once considered a rising star in the party. After he gave the Republican rebuttal to President Obama's 2009 State of the Union address -- and got mixed reviews -- his star dimmed.
But he's kept his hand in national politics, and though he has not said whether he will run, he's been making all the moves. He's taken four trips to Iowa since 2012, according to the Des Moines Register, and has been hitting the conservative gatherings hosting 2016 hopefuls over the last year.
"He's an undervalued stock," top aide Timmy Teepell told the Washington Examiner in October. The paper noted that pundits were skeptical of Jindal's chances, especially since he only had a 33 percent approval rating among his own constituency in Louisiana as of November. "Fortunately D.C. pundits don't get to decide elections," Teepell quipped.
Jindal came in third in September's Values Voter straw poll, indicating he still has a strong appeal to the social conservative base. Most recently, he gave a rare foreign policy speech at the conservative Foreign Policy Initiative. When asked on "Fox News Sunday" about his low ratings among presidential contenders, Jindal said he was substance over style. "This isn't about politicians [who are] popular by kissing babies and cutting ribbons."
"I was at less than two percent when I ran for governor," he said, and since, "we have transformed our state."
5. Robert Ehrlich
Robert Ehrlich, a former Maryland governor, has been giving speeches and keeping his name out there -- even if he's rarely mentioned alongside the Jeb Bushes and Ted Cruzes of the world.
"It all started pretty organically. I got invited to go to New Hampshire this summer and from that, been back a couple more times," Ehrlich told a Baltimore CBS affiliate. Ehrlich said he doesn't know how far he might go as a potential presidential candidate.
While he served as a Republican governor of a very blue state from 2003 to 2007, Ehrlich's name recognition beyond Maryland is lacking, and doesn't even register in the preliminary polling, political experts say.
While he hasn't formalized any exploratory apparatus, he told The Baltimore Sun in early December "there's been some discussion in the last week or so with some people who count."
6. John Kasich and Mike Pence
John Kasich and Mike Pence, the current governors of Ohio and Indiana, respectively, also have been mentioned as possible GOP nominees but neither has said whether he will run. Kasich is a former congressman whom pundits say might have trouble with the party due to his support for a Medicaid expansion under ObamaCare.
Pence, also a former congressman, is popular with Tea Party activists and Christian conservatives -- and has been giving speeches outside his home state.
He also got an endorsement from Steve Forbes at his Reinventing America summit in Indianapolis in November.