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Opinion: Columnists

GOP candidates flock to Iowa as caucuses regain prominence

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Politics,Opinion,Byron York,Columnists,Iowa,2014 Elections,2016 Elections,Campaigns,Terry Branstad

Not too long ago, Republican insiders were talking about the death of the Iowa caucuses. Candidates felt safe downplaying the nation's first presidential voting, arguing it was too much trouble for too few votes. Moderates said the caucuses were dominated by social conservatives. And then came the 2012 takeover of the state GOP by forces loyal to Ron Paul. Iowa had marginalized itself, some Republicans believed, and the result would be the caucuses losing their pre-eminent place in presidential politics.

What a difference an election cycle makes. Nearly a year and a half before the 2016 caucuses, Republican presidential hopefuls are flocking to Iowa. This week Rand Paul made a four-day tour of the state. This weekend, Ted Cruz, Rick Perry, Bobby Jindal, Rick Santorum, and Mike Huckabee are appearing at a conference sponsored by the social conservative group Family Leader. Chris Christie was there three weeks ago. Marco Rubio was there two weeks ago. Ben Carson will be there soon.

'The idea that one cycle can bring an end to a decades-long tradition is wrong.'

Jeb Bush is pretty much the only Republican name who hasn't visited Iowa lately — but just to stay in touch, he held a Florida fundraiser for Iowa's Republican Gov. Terry Branstad a few months ago. All of which suggests that talk about the caucuses being dead was just talk.

"The idea that one cycle can bring an end to a decades-long tradition is wrong," says David Kochel, a veteran Iowa GOP strategist who advised Mitt Romney the last time around and is not yet working for anyone for 2016. "Iowa's tradition is durable, appreciated by the candidates who relish one-on-one contact, the media who have learned how to cover them, and most importantly, the people of Iowa who have invested countless hours following, learning about, and supporting candidates from across a broad spectrum and both major parties."

Today's Iowa enthusiasm is hugely different from a couple of years ago. Back then, Ron Paul supporters had built an extensive organization in the run-up to the 2012 caucuses — and then, when Paul didn't do very well in the actual voting, directed their energy to capturing delegates in the organization-heavy state conventions that followed. Then a Paul supporter was elected chairman of the Iowa Republican Party.

That led to worries that the Iowa GOP had been captured by the so-called "liberty movement." Old-line Republicans found themselves dealing with Paul activists who were "focused on pet liberty-movement issues like banning police checkpoints, allowing sale of raw milk or getting rid of the Fed," according to an account in the Des Moines Register. Republicans in the rest of the country worried that Iowa had gone around the bend.

Then, his spring, the Establishment struck back, ousting the liberty movement officials and replacing them with more conventional Republicans. (Some of the Paulites went to work for Ron's son Rand, who has the best organization in the state.) Now, the GOP seems back on track and ready for a virtually continuous political campaign through 2016.

There are a lot of factors drawing Republicans to Iowa. First, Branstad is running for re-election, and every GOP politician with any presidential ambitions wants to fly in and help. (That's what Christie did, formally in his role as head of the Republican Governors Association.) Second, the GOP has a real chance to win the long-held seat of Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin — another reason for national Republicans to drop by. And just for good measure, there are two open House seats up for grabs this November.

While the Republican caucuses appear in robust health, the situation is less clear on the Democratic side. Iowa gave a huge boost to Barack Obama in 2008. Having an incumbent president meant no contest in 2012, after which the caucuses would presumably return with renewed energy and a nomination at stake in 2016.

Of course, a Hillary Clinton candidacy could put an end to that, if the party chooses to award the nomination pre-emptively to the former secretary of state. But it is not clear whether caucus-going Iowa Democrats really want to give the prize so easily. Other Democratic candidates will make their way to Iowa — they're doing so very tentatively now — and Iowa Democrats might want at least a semblance of a real campaign. For his part, Kochel believes Clinton will "eventually be dragged into a ground war out here, so she can meet her astronomically high expectations."

Maybe that's just Republican wishful thinking. But even if Democrats do nothing in Iowa, there will still be a big, big GOP show. Reports of the caucuses' death really were exaggerated, after all.

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Byron York

Chief Political Correspondent
The Washington Examiner

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