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Opinion

Which Republican governor would be the best 2016 presidential candidate?

Historically, we are a country that loves to elect governors as president. Looking forward to 2016, the Republican field includes nearly a dozen present or past state executives.

On the campaign trail, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie stresses attacking inherited budgetary problems, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal education reform, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker curbing government employee unions.

But like Texas Gov. Rick Perry's poor record providing social services, these three face serious questions about their economic stewardships, especially how their trademark GOP conservative tax-cutting policies exacerbated, rather than resolved, budget deficits.

Here are some specifics about each potential candidate's record:

Rick Perry's mixed record

Former Texas Governor Rick Perry speaks to guests
Photo Credit: Getty Images / Scott Olson

Former Texas Governor Rick Perry speaks to guests at the Iowa Freedom Summit on January 24, 2015 in Des Moines, Iowa. When former Gov. Rick Perry hits the presidential campaign trail, he stresses the low unemployment, impressive job creation and balanced budgets during 14 years as Texas' governor.

He downplays the state's inadequate record in health insurance coverage, carbon dioxide emissions and high school graduations.

Chris Christie's 'Jersey comeback'

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie speaks to guests
Photo Credit: Getty Images / Scott Olson

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie speaks to guests at the Iowa Freedom Summit on January 24, 2015 in Des Moines, Iowa. For years, Christie touted the "Jersey comeback" that capped high property taxes, pledged to fund an ailing pension system and gave business tax incentives to create jobs.

But a slower economic recovery than other states forced suspension of pension payments and produced eight credit downgrades. Facing a $1.6 billion deficit, Christie last month urged legislators to consider "where we were and how far we've come," but he did not specify how to fix the pension problem.

A recent Farleigh Dickinson University poll rated his job approval at 39 percent. Only one in five called his tenure good for the average New Jersey citizen, and three-fourths said he had "minor accomplishments or no real accomplishments."

Bobby Jindal's Louisiana wreck

Gov. Bobby Jindal (R-LA) speaks at the CPAC
Photo Credit: Getty Images / Mark Wilson

Gov. Bobby Jindal (R-LA) speaks at the CPAC Conference, on March 6, 2014 in National Harbor, Maryland. The 43-year-old Jindal hoped to make Louisiana a laboratory for conservative government, but the experiment has blown up in his face.

Several recent articles assailed his budgetary missteps ("How Bobby Jindal Wrecked Louisiana," headlined one in The American Conservative), blaming his own policies, including massive tax cuts, corporate subsidies and short-term financing gimmicks.

Jindal took office with a $1 billion surplus from an economy buoyed by high oil prices and signed five tax cuts totaling $1.1 billion, including one from legislative Republicans he initially opposed. Now, with oil prices sharply down, the state has a $1.4 billion shortfall.

He refused to raise taxes or cut corporate subsidies for Wal-Mart, the oil refiner Valero and the popular television show "Duck Dynasty." But he proposed increasing already sharp cuts for higher education.

Critics label the underlying situation even worse, because of borrowing from state reserve funds that pay elderly services and patient claims. GOP critics include Sen. David Vitter, the favorite to replace Jindal this year.

Scott Walker's wilted Wisconsin

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker attends a news briefing
Photo Credit: Getty Images / Spencer Platt

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker attends a news briefing during the Republican Governors Association's quarterly meeting on May 21, 2014 in New York City. Like other governors elected in 2010, Walker promised to cut taxes, adding he'd create 250,000 new jobs and cut unemployment. Four years later, substantial economic problems remain.

Several news organizations unfavorably compared Walker's conservative economic policies with the success of liberal prescriptions in neighboring Minnesota by Democratic Gov. Scott Dayton, also elected in 2010 and facing similar problems.

The La Crosse (Wisconsin) Tribune noted Walker faced a 9.2 percent jobless rate and a $3.6 billion deficit. He cut income and property taxes by some $2 billion, made massive cuts in public education and required public employees to pay more for health insurance and pensions. In Minnesota, Dayton, inheriting a $5 billion deficit, raised taxes on the wealthiest citizens and on tobacco while cutting some middle-class taxes. Wisconsin rejected federal funds to expand Medicaid; Minnesota took them and created its own health care marketplace.

Now, Minnesota has faster job growth and a lower jobless rate.

Wisconsin faces a $2.2 billion deficit; Minnesota has a $1.2 billion surplus. Minnesota is repaying funds borrowed from school funding, while Walker seeks additional cuts in education, including the University of Wisconsin system, arousing strong faculty and student opposition.

Jeb Bush, Micke Huckabee and more

Former Florida governor Jeb Bush waves to the
Photo Credit: Getty Images / Justin Sullivan

Former Florida governor Jeb Bush waves to the audience before speaking at the 2015 National Auto Dealers Association (NADA) conference on January 23, 2015 in San Francisco, California. All gubernatorial hopefuls have mixed records. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee has long faced conservative criticism for increasing taxes and spending. A strong economy enabled former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush to cut taxes but he let some spending rise and pursued moderate stances on immigration and education.

The real threat to Christie, Jindal and Walker could come if two other Midwestern governors elected in 2010 under similar circumstances decide to run. Unlike those three, Ohio's John Kasich and Indiana's Mike Pence have balanced budgets that permit additional tax cuts and education support.

Both would have a strong case on how being governor prepared them to be president.

Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News.

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