AMES, Iowa — Five Republican presidential contenders paraded through Iowa this weekend, as much to see voters as to talk with potential staff and lay groundwork for campaign operations.
Some potential candidates have an early advantage built from previous forays through Iowa. Two former Iowa caucus winners, Arkansas then-Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, still have a strong following among the state's social conservatives. And both have maintained a team of activists and volunteers who will be ready to jump on board should their candidate launch a bid.
Huckabee traveled to Iowa with three national advisers: Chip Saltsman, Alice Stewart, and daughter Sarah Huckabee, who worked on Tim Pawlenty's campaign in 2012. But the former governor maintains deep ties with activists who hoped to see him run in 2012 and are thrilled he's looking at 2016. He spoke at the "Pastors and Pews" program Friday morning, a closed-door meeting of pastors in Cedar Rapids.
"If Mike Huckabee said this weekend, 'I'm running,' he would have a reasonable organization ready to go," said Trudy Caviness, a GOP State Central Committee member from Ottumwa. "Santorum has people who will be ready to go."
Indeed, Santorum said he has kept Iowa activists engaged through his PAC, Patriot Voices. "We have a pretty good membership here, a pretty active membership," Santorum told National Journal after his speech at a Boone County GOP picnic. "This is a state that is very much connected to national politics and it's fun to be back in town."
Other candidates will have to work harder to build support and an infrastructure in Iowa. That's why Sen. Rand Paul and Texas Gov. Rick Perry have been spending so much time here.
Paul is the furthest along in putting together an actual campaign apparatus: He's hired a pair of former state party chairmen, Steve Grubbs and A.J. Spiker, to run his Iowa operations, and benefits from some residual support for his father, Rep. Ron Paul.
The Kentucky senator wrapped up a three-day Iowa swing last week, campaigning with local and federal 2014 candidates and meeting activists across the state. He scored good reviews and plenty of headlines from the trip — but also got a taste of the dangers of an on-the-ground trip when he and Rep. Steve King were confronted by a young immigration activist at a campaign stop.
Perry ran in 2012, but many Iowa Republicans say that since he joined the race late and spent less time in Iowa overall, many voters are still getting to know him. He's in the midst of a four-day Iowa trip, beginning in Ames and crisscrossing the state for events with state legislative candidates and congressional candidates alike. He took a similar multi-day trip in July, which convinced many activists that he's a better candidate than he was in 2012.
"His performance on the stump, it's fair to say, has impressed people," said Nick Ryan, who heads the American Future Fund and worked for Santorum in 2012. "Which is unfortunate, in some respects, because they're comparing him to himself" in 2012.
Perry hasn't hired paid staffers in the state thus far, but his 2012 adviser, Bob Haus, is back on board and is helping Perry on the ground. California-native strategist Jeff Miller, who previously advised Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, leads his national team. Perry also recently launched RickPAC, a group aimed at helping out GOP candidates in 2014. That group is led by former Newt Gingrich counsel Stefan Passantino and includes Mark Miner, Perry's 2012 communications director, as spokesman.
Haus has worked to put together Perry's multi-day trips to the state, and says his bevy of public appearances are the best way for him to put himself in front of other activists who could help with an eventual campaign.
"He's trying to help as many county parties and candidates as he can while he's in town," Haus said. "Those meetings are a great way to meet key activists."
But for all the attention the candidates attracted at the state fair and a weekend conservatives event here in Ames, the first real cattle call of 2016 underscored just how completely open the Republican field is with 18 months to go before the caucuses.
"This field of presidential candidates is about as wide-open to the taking as any that I've seen in decades," said Jeff Kaufmann, the new Iowa GOP chairman.
In addition to the household names who have been working Iowa for months, a handful of newcomers have begun to make repeat visits, including Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, and Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida.
Other prospects mentioned by GOP activists in the state include Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who must fight a tough reelection battle before he can begin talking about his 2016 ambitions, and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who hasn't yet been to Iowa but raised money for Gov. Terry Branstad earlier this year.
Conversations with almost two-dozen Iowa GOP strategists, activists, and politicians portrayed a fluid race that is anybody's game. Party members had ideas about the type of candidate they'd like to see win and which prospects they think have shown up in the state enough to be serious, but the predictions for 2016 stopped there.
Most prospects who are serious about a bid will begin making concrete moves by November, whether that's hiring paid staff or getting a team of several important supporters and activists together. A handful of operatives with past statewide or presidential experience — including Tim Albrecht, a former Branstad adviser; David Kochel, who ran Mitt Romney's 2008 and 2012 campaigns in the state; Chad Olsen, who's worked for the Iowa GOP and the Republican National Committee in the state; and Eric Woolson, who worked with Huckabee in 2008 and Pawlenty and Michele Bachmann in 2012 — are likely to get calls from prospective candidates looking for on-the-ground help.
Still, Chuck Laudner, who ran Santorum's 2012 Iowa operations, said finding influential activists in various regions of the state is just as important as a statewide strategist or operative team.
"Iowa has this enormous number of grassroots activists, people who have different spheres of influence — maybe in their county, or in a region of the state or some are even statewide," Laudner said. "Inside the party, outside the party, on issues for candidates, everybody knows them. These are the most important people here."
Some operatives noted that if the famed Iowa straw poll ends up getting scrapped for next year, prospective candidates will have more time to get a team together.
"The straw poll provided a pressure point that was in August "¦ if that doesn't exist, then it provides a little more flexibility for some of these candidates," Ryan said. "If you're a really well-known candidate, you don't need to get in as soon."