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Lack of 2016 front-runner puts the GOP on edge

“It’s anybody’s ballgame,” as one longtime RNC member put it, bluntly.

SCOTTSDALE, Arizona -- The Republican Party is without a front-runner in the presidential nomination fight.

It’s a reality that's been brewing for months, but has crystallized this week among the GOP officials gathered here in Arizona for the Republican National Committee’s spring meeting.

Jeb Bush has fallen from the man to beat to the richest member of the pack. Scott Walker seems to have gone underground. Marco Rubio is exciting but untested. And the Republican establishment is growing increasingly nervous that the party is facing a long, bloody primary fight that could drag into next summer.

“There are a bevy of riches,” former presidential candidate Rick Santorum said Thursday, putting the most positive possible spin on the chaotic reality that Republicans now face. "I don’t know how you could look at any metric and not see that this is a completely wide open race."

Santorum’s rosy take is different from the slightly nervous, somewhat unsettled mood among the state party chairs, committee members and operatives who have gathered at the luxurious Phoenician resort. But hallway conversations, interviews and casual discussions over two days reveal they’ve largely reached the same conclusion about the state of the race: “It’s anybody’s ballgame,” as one longtime RNC member put it, bluntly.

Driving this reality? First, major mistakes. Earlier this year, it was Walker, who was leading in polls when he struggled to answer simple questions about President Obama’s religion. He ducked questions from reporters and voters in the weeks that followed — though he has opened up some in recent weeks — and refused press access to his ongoing trip to Israel this week. “Now he’s running the Hillary strategy,” said an RNC member who’s supporting a different candidate in the 2016 race. “It’s the right strategy for him, but it’s not a good situation.” 

RELATED: Jeb Bush attempts to clarify Iraq remarks ... again

And then there’s Bush, who this week couldn’t seem to find an answer to the question that has seemed the most obvious from the get-go: Whether he would have authorized the war in Iraq that his brother launched in 2003. He stumbled into it in the very first sit-down TV interview he’s given since December, when he announced he was interested in pursuing the presidency, telling Fox News’ Megyn Kelly that he would have launched the war. It took him four days to fix it.

"Knowing what we know now,” Bush finally said on Thursday during a town hall in nearby Tempe, "I would not have engaged. I would not have gone into Iraq."

The stumbling raised fears among many Bush loyalists and admirers. “That’s not a hard answer. The answer is, ‘hell no,’” said one RNC attendee.

"I always encourage everybody to run for president, but it’s hard,” said Santorum, when a reporter asked if Bush was no longer an unstoppable force. “You’re [reporters] here to cut to the bone. And, I’ve felt that knife at the bone. And it’s a tough business, and if you’re not prepared for it ... you’re not going to do very well."

"I don’t know how you could look at any metric and not see that this is a completely wide open race."'

Bush’s diminished stature is quite a switch from just four months ago, when the party met in San Diego and the halls were energized by the prospect of Bush’s impending candidacy. Back then, it had been about a month since Bush had announced he was interested in the race; Mitt Romney was considering a bid and many of the RNC's members privately wanted Romney to get out of the way so they could jump aboard with Bush.

Since that time, Bush has raised tens of millions of dollars — possibly over $100 million, an eye-popping and likely record-breaking sum. He’s mounted an intense behind-the-scenes campaign to win over party chairs, officials and donors, taking aim at rivals’ longtime supporters (particularly Chris Christie’s). 

But he’s failed to truly consolidate the party’s support in the early stages of the nomination battle — and that’s not just because of the recent Iraq stumble. It’s also the overall inaction in the non-finance areas of the campaign — namely Bush’s waiting to formally announce and his failure to gin up excitement among voters in early states. “It’s not just Iraq. It’s everything about how he’s conducted his campaign so far,” said another member of the committee, who hasn’t yet signed on with a candidate and requested anonymity to discuss private deliberations.

RELATED: Marco Rubio defends ties to major donor

Bush’s family legacy and the focus on finding a new face to lead the charge against Hillary Clinton have raised nagging doubts for both Republican elites and the grassroots. It helps explain why there seem to be more and more potential Republican presidential candidates by the day — including John Kasich, the Ohio governor with longstanding ties to the Bush family who was widely expected to stay out when Jeb Bush announced he was interested.

The whole scenario is the exact opposite of what the RNC tried to engineer as it surveyed the damage in the wake of 2012. Officials, led by RNC Chairman Reince Priebus, changed the rules for awarding delegates and altered the calendar to try and make sure the party picked a nominee quickly. It was supposed to eliminate a drawn-out fight like the one between Santorum and Romney that continued through April 2012 —and drained Romney’s campaign of the money it could have used to answer Obama campaign attack ads that aired all summer long. All the better, the thinking went, to take on Clinton with a strong, consensus choice nominated at an early convention in July of 2016.

Now, party members speculated this week, it’s possible that as many as a half dozen candidates could emerge from the early state primaries. That sends the contest into a handful of bigger states that will award delegates proportionally, and then into a winner-take-all season after March 15. If there are multiple candidates still in, it could spark an across-the-map slugfest as hopefuls campaigned in different friendly delegate-rich states, their ads paid for by super PACs that can raise unlimited funds from a single wealthy backer.

In many ways, the GOP nomination process at this point is more chaotic than any in recent memory—and could make GOP history. Since the 1960s, Santorum pointed out during his luncheon speech Thursday, the Republican Party has nominated just three types of people. “No. 1, they were a vice president. No. 2, they were the son of a former president,” Santorum said. “No. 3, the came in second place the election before, and ran again.”

Additional reporting by msnbc's Anthony Terrell.