DES MOINES, Iowa -- 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.”