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For Iowa Republicans, 2016 Is Already Here

For Iowa Republicans, 2016 Is Already Here

By Scott Conroy - December 19, 2013

DES MOINES -- The next time a disdainful pundit or pious political strategist repeats the mantra that it's "way too early" to talk about the next presidential campaign, you have permission to ignore that decree.

In stark contrast to the slow-to-develop 2012 race for the White House, 2016 has already arrived here in the nation’s first voting state, particularly on the Republican side of the equation.

True, the polls won’t tell us much that is meaningful at this point in the cycle. And the dynamics of the race will shift a thousand times before GOP caucus-goers have their say on a January night two years down the line.

But a slew of prospective GOP candidates have spent the past year calibrating their positions, putting out feelers through well-connected Iowa intermediaries and making attention-grabbing trips to this state that no ambitious politician has ever visited by accident.

Even as the would-be contenders chide the media for devoting anything more than a passing thought to the next presidential race, the evidence suggests that they themselves are intently focused on it, despite their avowals to the contrary.

And countering whispers that its traditional relevance to the Republican nominating contest may finally be fading, Iowa is once again shaping up as Ground Zero in what is expected to be a battle royale among several serious candidates.

In conversations this week with almost a dozen state GOP power brokers and influencers, a consensus emerged on a couple of fronts.

First, the 2016 contest in Iowa looks to be as wide-open as it has ever been.

And in a 180-degree turn from 2012’s Republican field here, which was almost universally regarded as sub-par, the next slate of candidates will feature several who are capable of riding an Iowa victory all the way to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., as Barack Obama did in 2008.

“I’ve never seen so much activity, so early, as I have in the past few months,” said one influential state Republican, who asked to remain anonymous due to potential conflicts with several prospective candidates with whom he has already met.

In getting off to such an early start, the hopefuls appear to have learned a valuable lesson from the experience of the last two caucus winners: former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.

Both started their bids here as underfunded long shots but worked the state early and often, cultivating face-to-face relationships in all 99 counties on the way to victory.

Now pondering whether to take a second shot at the presidency, Huckabee and Santorum have each made two visits to Iowa this year -- and they didn’t come just to eat fried butter at the state fair or check out the world’s largest rocking chair in West Amana.

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz has visited three times in 2013 and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul found time in his busy schedule on Capitol Hill to make two sojourns to the state this year.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal have also journeyed here in the past 12 months.

And though Florida Sen. Marco Rubio purposely avoided making trips to the early voting states in 2013, he had been the first out of the gate, appearing in Altoona with Gov. Terry Branstad less than two weeks after President Obama was re-elected in November 2012.

And the pre-candidate visits will only increase in the year ahead.

Perry, according to a source familiar with his plans, is already penciling in a return in early 2014, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, in his official role as Republican Governors Association chairman, will have a convenient reason for showing up when he campaigns on behalf of Branstad’s re-election bid.

Most of the other potential candidates are poised to follow suit, as they look to massage relationships and collect local chits by helping Branstad, as well as whoever becomes the GOP’s nominee to take on Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley in the 2014 U.S. Senate race.

And with the unexpected retirement announcement of Republican Congressman Tom Latham on Tuesday, Iowa’s 3rd District race is shaping up to be uber-competitive, which will provide even more opportunities for GOP presidential contenders to make positive impressions here.

Polk County Republican County Chairman Will Rogers, whose group has hosted Perry and Walker this year, is aiming to book another big-name hopeful for a major fundraising dinner this spring.

“We’re definitely right in the thick of it,” Rogers said of the Polk County GOP’s outreach to the likely 2016 field. “Scott Walker came in the spring for us, and people are still raving about it; 650 people came to dinner and maxed out the hotel space. He gave a great talk.”

Several other prominent Iowa Republicans interviewed for this story also mentioned the Wisconsin governor, who is up for re-election next year, as being among the more promising possible contenders.

Over the past year, an internal power struggle has been waged among the Branstad-backed party establishment, the state party-aligned Tea Party, and the evangelical rank-and-file whose foot soldiers traditionally play an outsized role in the GOP caucuses.

Any 2016 candidate who can win over two (and, ideally, all three) of those factions will be well-positioned to triumph in the Hawkeye State.

Though he is untested on the national stage -- and is perhaps not as captivating as some of his prospective rivals -- Walker has gotten so much early buzz in Iowa because of his potential to appeal strongly to each of the factions.

And Walker has another convenient factor working in his favor.

“I’m sure [that] as a Republican governor from a neighboring state, he’d play well,” said Mike Whalen, a longtime party fundraiser.

But Walker is far from the consensus early favorite. Ask three different Iowa politicos who has generated the most buzz so far on the Republican side, and you’re likely to get three different answers.

Case in point: a Des Moines Register poll released over the weekend showed Paul Ryan -- who was thought to have become somewhat of an afterthought here following his underwhelming vice-presidential candidacy -- with the highest favorability rating of anyone in the likely 2016 field among Republican caucus-goers.

Another recent twist has been the reemergence of chatter about Huckabee, who last week told reporters in Arkansas that he was seriously considering another White House bid.

Huckabee’s evangelical clout, nearly unparalleled retail politicking skills, and strong familiarity in the state would “catapult him to near-front-runner status” in Iowa were he enter the 2016 race, according to Tim Albrecht (who, as an aide to Mitt Romney here in 2008, saw first-hand Huckabee’s strength).

“I think people underestimate Huckabee’s broad appeal because the way he won [in 2008] was being an approachable guy who talked to middle-class, blue-collar voters unlike anyone else, and he traveled to all 99 of Iowa’s counties,” Albrecht said. “That’s a great formula for performing well in the caucuses. And the case for a governor now has never been stronger.”

Among the state’s libertarian-leaning “liberty movement” crowd, whose ranks are bolstered by the Iowa GOP leadership team, Rand Paul continues to generate big-time enthusiasm.

In conjunction with some overlap among hard-core economic conservatives within the evangelical faction, Ted Cruz’s name is mentioned more than anyone else as someone who brings the highest level of excitement to the table.

“What caucus-goers are going to be looking for is not just someone who’s different than the 2016 nominee that the Democrats put up,” said conservative grassroots Iowa activist Ryan Rhodes. “It’s going to be someone who wants to actually dismantle what’s been going on the last six years.”

Though it may be tempting to dismiss a potential second presidential bid from Rick Perry, particularly in light of how his first one underwhelmed voters, his name came up several times in conversations here as someone many Iowa Republicans were impressed with during his recent visits and someone they are willing to give another look.

But two possible candidates who previously were pegged as early-frontrunner material -- Jindal and Rubio -- appear to have fallen off the radar screen, at least for the time being.

Rubio, in particular, has more damage control to do after his efforts to enact comprehensive immigration reform left lingering negative impressions among wide swaths of Iowa Republicans.

He has, no doubt, plenty of time to do just that. But if Rubio runs, he will not be starting in the pole position.

All signs point to the 2016 Republican race here as being particularly unpredictable, impactful, and downright exciting to watch.

If the intensity of the main event matches that of the preliminary round, it will indeed live up to the early hype. 

Scott Conroy is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at sconroy@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @RealClearScott.

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