Potential 2016 GOP presidential candidates to descend on Iowa

CBS

This article originally appeared on RealClearPolitics.

The Iowa State Fair doesn't kick off for another three weeks, but 2016 watchers in the state won't have to wait for that colorful event in Des Moines -- and its assorted fried foods on a stick -- to get their fill of presidential politics this summer.

Iowa is about to become Ground Zero in the most wide-open battle for the Republican presidential nomination in memory, as no less than seven prospective contenders are set to travel there over the next few weeks.

And though we're still at least several months away from any of them declaring their candidacies, Iowa GOP power brokers are already sizing up the field. In particular, they're taking note of which White House hopefuls have begun to conduct the kind of early organizing typically required to succeed in the nation's first voting state.

These impending trips to the Hawkeye State signal that the next installment of the Iowa Republican caucuses -- often maligned yet always impactful -- will continue to play a central role in the early presidential nominating cycle.

Chris Christie will kick off the summer flurry of Iowa political activity on Thursday when the New Jersey governor and Republican Governors Association chairman embarks on a three-city fundraising and retail-politicking tour across the state.

Despite his profile as a northeastern centrist whose demeanor and policies might be out of touch with the state Republican Party's deeply conservative electorate, Christie's reputation as a problem-solver and his unmatched charisma on the stump have long made him a hit in Iowa.

And if he survives the continued fallout from the Bridgegate scandal and makes a play in this key Midwestern state, even a modestly strong result there could pay huge dividends in building momentum toward the next contest on the electoral calendar -- the New Hampshire primary, where his strength is more evident.

One potential rival who will not have that luxury of being able to downplay Iowa is Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who will make his fourth trip to the state since the 2012 election when he arrives on Saturday for a jam-packed weekend swing.

Perry, who has spent the last year and a half brushing up on national and international policy issues, still has a lot of work to do in convincing party activists to give him another look after his promising 2012 run fizzled into a political embarrassment.

But Perry's 14-year tenure at the helm of one of the nation's largest states, bona fides on many issues that conservative activists tend to care most about and proven ability to raise buckets of money are among the assets he would bring to the table in a second presidential bid, in which the bar would be set lower for him than before.

Much of the rest of the country may be quick to dismiss him, but Iowa political watchers are taking Perry seriously, noting that his political rehabilitation has been going well thus far.

"He'll get a fair shake and has the potential to perform much better than in 2011, when he just wasn't ready to go," said an Iowa GOP operative who worked for one of Perry's opponents during the last campaign. "He can't wait until South Carolina and has no shot in New Hampshire. They'll try and put down a bigger bet here and hire up the best team they can find."

By most accounts, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul is the early Republican frontrunner in Iowa and enjoys the highest built-in level of support, which he can almost certainly count on maintaining, should he run.

The political infrastructure that his father, Ron Paul, left behind following his 2008 and 2012 presidential bids is still very much in place, and Rand Paul has already shown an ability to build on that ingrained base.

"He has the strongest grassroots organization of the folks who are looking at the presidential field right now," said Polk County GOP Chairman Will Rogers. "The ground organization in Iowa never really went away. They've been here for eight years."

Paul will arrive on Aug. 4 for his latest three-day trip, this one centering on fundraisers for local Republican groups in Clear Lake and Urbandale, whose active members he will court with the help of his deeply connected Iowa team.

Though establishment Republicans earlier this year retook control of the state party apparatus, Paul's PAC has already hired the two Iowa operatives who are expected to run his all-but-certain 2016 campaign there: A.J. Spiker and Steve Grubbs, both of whom are former state GOP chairmen.

"Our goal will be to begin looking at some key players in Iowa and have them ride or spend some private time with Sen. Paul and giving them a chance to ask questions," Grubbs told RCP of the senator's upcoming trip. "He's definitely getting ahead of the game in organizing the state for whatever his purposes might be."

Another way for Republican presidential contenders to get ahead of the game in Iowa is to begin wooing the politically influential evangelical community, which has long played a major role in the caucuses.

That is a large reason why the winners of the last two party caucuses -- Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum -- will be on hand for the Family Leadership Summit on Aug. 9 in Ames.

Huckabee and Santorum are both considering 2016 bids, and though they may not be generating as much national hype as some of the other potential candidates, their ability to be significant factors again in Iowa is evident.

Huckabee, in particular, has demonstrated the lasting goodwill he enjoys there, as he currently leads the pack in the RealClearPolitics average of 2016 Iowa caucus polls.

The most direct competitor for his support base may be Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, whom many state politicos believe has made big inroads over the last year. Cruz also will be on hand for the evangelical summit in Ames, where his staunchly conservative social and fiscal politics, as well as his finely tuned speaking style, will be on display.

Perry and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who has left little doubt that he intends to seek the presidency, will also speak at the Christian conservative confab, which is being hosted by prominent evangelical leader Bob Vander Plaats' group.

Meanwhile, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan do not currently have public plans to appear in Iowa, though each has visited in recent months.

Two other potential top-tier hopefuls also don't have Iowa on their travel schedules: former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.

For different reasons, both Bush and Walker have been far more circumspect than the other possible candidates about making the rounds in the state, though Bush did recently host a fundraiser in Florida for Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad.

Bush appears to have sincere reservations about whether to throw his hat in the ring and has been reluctant to involve himself in the early jockeying.

Walker, on the other hand, has held back on Iowa travel for a different reason: He faces a tight race for re-election in November and has a clear interest in avoiding being seen as looking ahead to the next step in his political career.

  • Scott Conroy On Twitter»

    Scott Conroy is a National Political Reporter for RealClearPolitics and a contributor for CBS News.

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