DES MOINES — In Iowa, it's beginning to feel a lot like 2016.
The first-in-the-nation presidential caucuses may still be almost a year and a half away and 2016 GOP hopefuls won't even begin to declare their intentions until next year, but the influx of would-be candidates this week means the jockeying is fully underway.
"It's been a process that actually started, oh, about 22 minutes after the election was over in 2012," said Loras Schulte, a member of the state GOP central committee from Norway, Iowa. "Politics don't really ever stop here in Iowa."
Thursday marks the beginning of the Iowa State Fair, a perennial stop for candidates-in-waiting to shake some hands, eat a corndog, and speak on the Des Moines Register soapbox (the site of Mitt Romney's infamous "corporations are people" comment).
And Saturday is the Family Leadership Summit in Ames, Iowa, the first major 2016 GOP cattle-call and a top place for prospects to meet and get in front of top activists from across the state. Five 2016 hopefuls — Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee, Bobby Jindal, Rick Perry and Rick Santorum — are scheduled to speak during the day-long event, and Iowa activists say the event will be a big test of these candidates' ability to connect with the crowd.
In fact, between last Saturday and this Saturday, no fewer than seven presidential prospects are scheduled to visit the state.
"You're not going to be able to take two steps [without] running into somebody," joked Karen Fesler, an activist from Johnson County who backed Santorum in 2012, of the next few days in the Hawkeye State.
An August pilgrimage to Iowa for the state fair is a way to — very publicly — test the waters for anyone who's even considering a bid (though of course, all of them have been here before). And in a state like Iowa, which prizes its first-in-the-nation status and expects candidates to put in the work and meet voters face-to-face, it's a necessity.
Iowa is "good old fashioned grassroots: it's going to GOP dinners and as many counties as you can," said Chip Saltsman, an adviser to Huckabee who ran the former governor's 2008 campaign when Huckabee won that year's Iowa caucuses. "It's meeting state representatives and state senators and party activists. There is no secret formula here ... it is literally about spending hours on the ground, days on the ground, working the crowd."
Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul just finished up a three-day swing that took him to all corners of the state. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio was in town last weekend to fundraise with GOP Senate candidate Joni Ernst and attend GOP powerbroker Bruce Rastetter's annual party.
Both Jindal and Santorum arrive in town Friday; they'll each attend events Friday and Saturday in and near Des Moines before speaking at the Family Leadership Summit in Ames on Saturday afternoon.
Perry arrives on Saturday; he'll attend the Family Leader event in Ames and then head out on a three-day tour across the state. This trip comes just several weeks after his last multi-day swing through Iowa. Huckabee will meet with conservative activists this week, then return to Iowa on Saturday for the Family Leader event.
Most of the prospects have indicated they'll make a decision late this year or in early 2015 — meaning now really is the time for them to try Iowa out. Operatives in the state say each prospective candidate must have at least a small team in place here by the end of the year in order to hit the ground running when they formally announce their bids.
"It's too early obviously for a formal announcement that you are running, but at the same time you have to be laying some groundwork," said Chuck Laudner, who ran Santorum's Iowa operations in 2012.
Despite thoughts of 2016, prospective candidates must be cognizant of the fact that Iowa has a highly competitive Senate race and a handful of competitive congressional races, all of which are quickly heating up as fall approaches — a balance that David Chung, a member of the state GOP's central committee from Cedar Rapids, likened to "walking a tightrope."
"They want to get themselves out there before activists, but they don't want to overshadow our midterm election," he added.
Coming to town to campaign with 2014 candidates — which many 2016 prospects have done or are planning to do — is the best way to have a presence and be visible across Iowa without appearing overly ambitious. Take Joni Ernst, for example: she's the GOP's candidate locked in a tough race for the state's open Senate seat, and help from national GOP figures could help move the dial for her this fall.
"The advantage of coming out now before 2014 is they can build up a lot of goodwill with our elected officials and party leaders," said Iowa GOP Chairman Jeff Kaufmann.
Some Iowa GOP candidates have taken full advantage of the star power at their disposal. For example: in a one-week period, congressional candidate Mariannette Miller-Meeks has gotten or will get campaign-trail help from Paul, Jindal and Perry.
While most prospective candidates have yet to begin taking concrete steps toward laying the groundwork for a 2016 bid, Paul has hired staffers here as well as in New Hampshire and Michigan. A pair of former state GOP chairmen, Steve Grubbs and A.J. Spiker, will run his Iowa campaign.
Other prospects — namely Huckabee, Santorum and Perry — have run here before, so have a base of former activists and volunteers who are likely to come to their aid should they decide to run again. For prospective candidates who don't already have volunteers and advisers in the state, coming to Iowa is a way to both get in front of prominent activists and operatives who will make up the ground organization of a campaign.
"The one thing all candidates need is to find [out], who's their Iowa guy — or woman — going be?" said Craig Robinson, editor of the Iowa Republican. "Who's your contact in the state, if it's either a paid individual or someone who's a believer in you and is willing to kind of show you the ropes."