Summer burst in Iowa belies little 2016 groundwork

DES MOINES, Iowa — Potential presidential candidates’ recent burst of summertime Iowa visits belies this reality: No one has started to do the serious spadework of preparing for a 2016 White House run in this important state.

Sure, it’s more than two years until Iowa is to begin the presidential selection process. But this is a state where presidential campaigning — including early wooing of state legislators, recruiting volunteers and identifying potential staff — is a near-constant undercurrent.

And yet the biggest names in the 2016 speculation game are all but absent in Iowa, so well-known that they have the luxury of staying away and doing little to nothing at this early stage.

None is bigger than that of Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton, and she appears to be in no hurry. Iowa has, however, heard from other possible candidates, most notably Republicans looking to position themselves from the outset in what’s expected to be a crowded field.

Freshman Texas Sen. Ted Cruz lit up conservative audiences on two recent visits. And Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul has stopped in Iowa three times this summer.

Even former Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown, who is also weighing a bid for Massachusetts governor and New Hampshire senator, threw his name out for consideration while strolling through the Iowa State Fair Sunday, according to The Des Moines Register. “I’m here, seeing if there’s any interest,” the newspaper quoted Brown as saying.

But Republicans with arguably larger profiles, including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan have all stayed away so far. Bush is the scion of a presidential family. Christie, Rubio and Ryan have emerged as national figures. Ryan also was the 2012 Republican vice presidential nominee.

Turmoil over how Republicans should move forward after last year’s election losses has also kept some from stepping out too soon, former Iowa GOP director Chuck Laudner said.

“Republicans are all over the map because (President Barack) Obama won, and we can’t figure out why,” said Laudner.

For Democrats, Clinton is the dominant early favorite.

“I have not heard from Secretary Clinton,” said Bonnie Campbell, Iowa chairwoman of Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign. “I hope I do.”

That hasn’t stopped Vice President Joe Biden — who has run for president twice before — from accepting Sen. Tom Harkin’s invitation to headline his annual fall fundraiser, the biggest Democratic event of the year.

Longtime Iowa Biden supporter Teri Goodmann, who met privately with Biden last month, said the vice president is weighing a campaign. “Having said that, he’s not a neophyte. He’s a very pragmatic politician, and he is aware of the challenges,” said Goodmann.

Other Democrats have taken small steps in Iowa but have not begun laying campaign groundwork.

Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley headlined Harkin’s steak fry last year and has held fundraisers for Senate candidate Bruce Braley. Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar spoke at a Democratic fundraiser Friday in northern Iowa’s Clear Lake.

Among the Republicans, only Paul and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum have anything approaching an Iowa campaign network. Paul’s is the vestige of the 2008 and 2012 GOP presidential campaigns of his father, former Texas Rep. Ron Paul. And Santorum, who hasn’t ruled out running again, has kept in touch with key supporters of his winning 2012 caucus campaign.

“No one has started really building a campaign,” said Steve Scheffler, an Iowa Republican National committeeman, though he cited Santorum as slightly ahead of everyone else because of the remnants of his past effort.

Former state GOP Chairman Matt Strawn said: “At a minimum, Sen. Paul is starting on first base rather than in the batter’s box, based on the support his father built through the years.”

Early visits, though, can alter the future campaign in subtle ways.

Jamie Johnson, a top Iowa adviser to Santorum in 2012, says he will back Cruz if the Texan runs in 2016. The tea party conservative who upset the establishment Republican candidate in the Texas Senate primary last year drew applause at a Christian conservative convention in Iowa last weekend when he called for closing the Internal Revenue Service and refusing to fund Obama’s health care law.

“Ted Cruz fits the times,” said Johnson, a pastor in a state where evangelical Christians form an important GOP voting bloc. “He is the zeitgeist candidate.”

No one, it seems, is making direct appeals for support. Rather, they are testing themes and taking the temperature of Iowans.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal strolled the grounds of Republican donor Bruce Rastetter’s farm in the north central part of the state this month at a fundraiser for Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, an annual gala that hundreds attended. Jindal steered clear of 2016 talk while posing for pictures and shaking hands over plates of barbecued pork.

Some local political activists look down on premature presidential campaigning.

“Potential 2016 candidates understand our first priority is to elect a Republican governor and senator in 2014,” said Nicole Schlinger, an Iowa-based strategist who worked for GOP presidential candidates in 2008 and 2012. “The more helpful they are in that regard, the better off these candidates will be when the caucus season rolls around.”

There are exceptions. Former Gov. Mike Huckabee visited Iowa a half-dozen times in 2005, en route to a surprise caucus victory in 2008, while former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney showered Iowa Republicans with campaign contributions in 2006, only to finish second to the little-known Huckabee.

There are less obvious ways to make connections. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker headlined a fundraiser for Branstad in May but also met privately with him this month at the National Governors Association meeting in Milwaukee. Christie also met with Branstad there, and Jindal flew from Iowa to Wisconsin with Branstad for the governors’ conference.

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