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Democrats test 2016 waters, even as Clinton looms

This article originally appeared on RealClearPolitics.

If Hillary Clinton has indeed managed to "freeze" the Democratic presidential field for 2016, as many pundits suggest is the case, some big cracks in the ice are about to spread across Iowa.

A growing number of ambitious Democrats are no longer waiting passively for the former secretary of state and frontrunner-in-waiting to make her decision about a campaign. Instead, they will soon begin the quadrennial ritual of descending en masse on the nation's first voting state.

Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar is set to become the first potential Democratic contender to introduce herself to future caucus-goers when she delivers the keynote address Friday at the 10th annual North Iowa Wing Ding Fundraiser.

Vice President Joe Biden and San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro (the latter keynoted the 2012 Democratic National Convention) will be hot on Klobuchar's heels when each appears Sept. 15 at Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin's 36th annual steak fry in Indianola.

And if there is any question about the significance of the 38-year-old mayor's attendance at the event, one need only look back to the 2006 steak fry. That year, a freshman senator named Barack Obama, who was then firmly denying any intention of running for president in 2008, introduced himself to Iowa at the same confab.

"It'd be foolish for anyone who's even kind of considering it to not start doing their homework and meeting with some of the activists around here," said Iowa Democratic operative Greg Hauenstein. "The people who go to the Harkin Steak Fry, especially in an off-year, are the really hard-core people who you want on your side."

Each of the Iowa-bound Democrats surely recognizes that any challenge to Clinton for the nomination would be a tough row to hoe, and all of them ultimately may pass on a presidential bid. The same can be said for Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, who has not been shy about his White House ambitions, and any other Democrat quietly contemplating a campaign for the nation's highest office.

But there is no guarantee that Clinton will run. And if she opts out, the Democratic field may suddenly be as wide open as the Republican side figures to be.

And even if Clinton does jump in -- and runs away with the nomination -- there appears to be little downside for any striving Democrat who enters the presidential equation (perhaps with a presidential bid in mind further down the road).

"If you're a politician with ambitions for higher office, you want to put yourself where the action is," said one high-level Democrat, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Iowa is where the action is, and even if you're not running next time, you can gain some good favor with folks who are important to gain good favor with, and they remember down the line."

The early 2016 activity isn't confined to Iowa. Biden and O'Malley have been particularly aggressive about raising money for politicians in other early-voting states, which may prove helpful down the line. Such a move is a perennial telltale sign of a well-defined plan to seek the presidency.

The vice president, for example, is set to speak at a fundraiser later this month for New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan, and O'Malley's PAC has donated to New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen. Both Granite State Democrats are up for re-election next year.

And both men have also taken a special interest in South Carolina, as each visited the first-in-the-South primary state earlier this year. High-level activists and party officials there are not averse to hosting other potential contenders, including those whose names have not yet been floated in earnest. (Several Republicans have also been openly jockeying for early 2016 position in the state.)

"Hillary Clinton is going to be formidable if she decides to run for the nomination -- there's no question about that," said South Carolina Democratic Party Chairman Jaime Harrison. "At the same time, people are very interested in what the future of the party looks like. They hear these discussions on the Republican side, and they're interested in meeting folks who are making headway on the Democratic side."

These early presidential flirtations do not appear to have ruffled feathers in Clinton World, as all of the potential Democratic hopefuls have treaded relatively lightly, remaining deferential -- albeit in varying degrees -- to the woman who could become the nation's first female president.

This collegial dynamic stands in contrast to the GOP's 2016 soul searching, in which a public spat between Rand Paul and Chris Christie recently earned headlines.

And it appears likely to remain in effect, at least in the near term, "unless you start hearing folks say, 'I'm in, come hell or high water, Hillary be damned,'" as one Democratic operative put it.

Eventually, however, any Democrats intent on challenging Clinton will have to make their mark more emphatically. In spite of all her clear advantages, after all, it would be unprecedented in modern American politics for a non-incumbent to have no serious competition for the nomination.

And as Clinton learned in 2008, nominating fights often are full of surprises.

For their part, Iowa Democrats have not traditionally been fond of presidential coronations. "While I think she would do very, very well and would probably win this time around if she were to run, nothing is a guarantee here," Hauenstein said. "Iowans will give anyone an honest look."

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