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Gigantic 2016 field turns onetime GOP stars into also-rans

Three Republican long shots are announcing their runs for president this week. In another year, they might have had a chance.

Why not me?

It’s a thought that surely crossed George Pataki’s mind ahead of his announcement on Thursday that he’ll seek the 2016 Republican nomination for president. After all, he led New York’s state government for over a decade and drew national attention for his administration’s work in the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks. Who’s to say he shouldn’t be a contender?

RELATED: George Pataki announces 2016 White House bid

Yet Pataki is considered an extreme long shot — one of several candidates entering the race this week with a strong presidential résumé, but not much else in their favor. The glut of 2016 Republican contenders — upwards of 18 are seriously looking at runs — means that many of this year's fringe contenders are experienced politicians who might have garnered serious attention in a different cycle.

In addition to Pataki, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum who ran in 2012, announced his own run on Wednesday. South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham is set to announce in Central, South Carolina on Monday. All have impressive backgrounds: Pataki can point to three terms as governor of a large blue state. Santorum won the Iowa caucuses in 2012 and finished as the runner-up in the primaries to Mitt Romney in a party that often promotes its runner-up to the top slot the next time around, and many of the current candidates are borrowing liberally from his blue-collar message. Graham is a veteran legislator known for his hawkish foreign policy views and his participation in high-profile bipartisan talks on issues like immigration reform.

“I think it’s tremendous for the Republican Party and for the nation as a whole we have this many candidates."'

And yet there's a good chance Pataki, Santorum and Graham won't even be on the debate stage come August 6, when FOX News hosts the first party sanctioned showdown of the contest. Only the top 10 Republicans in the race will make the grade as determined by an average of recent polling and current averages would leave all three out. 

Other non-invitees could include several Republicans with serious executive, legislative, or business experience. Two-term Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who has spent years raising his national profile for a presidential run without much success, is on the outside looking in. Two-term Ohio governor John Kasich, who won a blowout re-election in a critical swing state last year, is only on the edge of qualifying. Three-term former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who ran in 2012 (and lost in spectacular fashion), is also in trouble. Former computer executive Carly Fiorina, who national Republicans hope to showcase as the only female candidate in the field, is generating buzz in early states but still needs to make a national move.

Meanwhile, first time politician and career neurosurgeon Ben Carson looks like a lock. It’s possible real estate mogul and reality TV star Donald Trump, if he keeps up his presidential flirtation long enough, might qualify as well. 

“I think it’s tremendous for the Republican Party and for the nation as a whole we have this many candidates,” Steve Duprey, who chairs the RNC’s party’s debates committee, told msnbc in New Hampshire last week. “It’s a historical first.” 

RELATED: Santorum launches second presidential run with a populist pitch

The number of candidates makes sense given the lack of an obvious frontrunner to scare off the rest of the field. A new Quinnipiac poll, released on Thursday, found a five-way tie for first place between former Florida governor Jeb Bush, Sen. Marco Rubio, Carson, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, and Wisconsin governor Scott Walker with each getting a paltry 10% slice of support of Republican respondents. Sens. Rand Paul and Ted Cruz were right behind with 7% and 6% support. The margin of error in the poll was +/- 3.8%, so it’s hard to say anyone has a “lead” at all. When even a few points gain might launch them into a higher tier, it becomes a lot easier to convince yourself you have a chance.

Duprey noted that even candidates who miss making it into an early debate may still have a chance to bounce back into the mix.

“Candidates know what they need to shoot for,” Duprey said of the polling qualifications. “It’s important to remember ... that just because you’re not in the first one doesn’t mean you won’t be in the others.”

One of the biggest challenges potential candidates face -- fundraising -- has become less of an issue, as unlimited-donation super PACs have become the norm thanks to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. Santorum survived long enough to duel Romney one-on-one last time thanks to multi-million dollar outside support from mega-donor Foster Friess, who indicated this week that he would back Santorum again

Santorum’s difficulty gaining traction says it all about the difference between 2016 and 2012. A relatively sparse field of flawed anti-Romney contenders allowed Santorum to surge into the top tier despite major fundraising disadvantages that year. This time, he has to fight just to register in national polls at all – he showed no support in Quinnipiac’s latest survey as candidates like Huckabee consolidated the social conservatives Santorum won in 2012.

"I know what it's like to be an underdog," Santorum said at a kickoff rally on Wednesday in Cabot, Pennsylvania. "Four years ago, well, no one gave us much of a chance. But we won 11 states. We got four million votes, and it's not just because I stood for something. It's because I stood for someone -- the American worker." 

Eventually the GOP field will pare down. Some candidates will likely drop out after missing debates or simply drift off of voters’ radar. Candidates popular with individual wings of the party – Paul with libertarians, Cruz with tea partiers, Huckabee with evangelicals – could corner the market on their fields and push rivals into an early exit. If that doesn’t do it, then voters will start weighing in – nothing brings reality to an optimistic long shot like a 10th place finish in Iowa.

The biggest worry is that a prolonged race does some damage to whichever nominee emerges at the end. The extreme pressure to distinguish oneself early and often could encourage candidates to pick nasty high-profile fights – witness Jindal calling Paul “unsuited to be Commander-in-Chief” this week after Paul accused his hawk rivals of inadvertently encouraging the growth of ISIS. It could also tempt candidates to turn to policy positions that may be damaging in the general election.

Santorum is pledging to reduce legal immigration by 25%, an idea no candidate was willing to touch in 2012 for fear of alienating voters in immigrant-heavy communities, and if he gains ground others might be tempted to follow. Already Walker, looking to fire up the same blue-collar white voters Santorum is courting, has flirted with similar rhetoric and various candidates have abandoned past support for a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.   

Republican strategist Stuart Stevens, who advised Romney in 2012, cautioned it was still unclear how much more candidates might drag the party to the right. He noted that Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton had changed her position on issues like driver's licenses for undocumented immigrants and gay marriage from 2008 in order to satisfy her own base despite facing only token opposition so far. 

“It’s no secret you tend to have more activist elements of party involved in the nominating process on both sides,” Stevens told msnbc. “What I think is most remarkable is the degree to which Hillary Clinton is moving left when she’s 50 points ahead.”

The 2016 underdogs could also take comfort in being part of a long line of candidates to look great on paper, but – for a number of individual reasons – barely make an impact in their race. Take the 2008 Democratic primaries, for example, which featured an assortment of ultra-experienced graybeards who failed to make any noise. The most extreme case may have been New Mexico governor Bill Richardson, who had also served as a congressman, U.N. ambassador, and Secretary of Energy. Then-Sen. Joe Biden, a former presidential contender with unmatched foreign policy experience, ended up winning the vice presidential audition but never threatened to win any primaries. Neither did then-Sen. Chris Dodd, another Washington institution.