Amid the non-stop political ads, continuous get out the vote phone calls and serial campaign appearances, it might be easy to overlook the race for the White House — the 2016 race, that is.
As often as the 2012 presidential contenders and their running mates and families have been in Iowa — 38 times since June — recently they’ve been getting strong competition from folks seen as possible 2016 contenders.
Last week, Republicans Rick Santorum and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, and Democratic Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley made appearances in Iowa, which holds the first-in-the-nation precinct caucuses. This week, Santorum will be back and Republican Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal also will visit.
Of course, they deny any presidential overtones to their appearances.
At Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin’s annual steak fry Sept. 16, O’Malley downplayed any presidential aspirations, despite the fact the annual gathering of Democratic activists has been something of a rite of passage for presidential candidates-in-waiting. It’s where Barack Obama introduced himself to Iowans in 2007.
He only came because Harkin asked, O’Malley said.
“Iowa,” he added, “is a very important state to President Obama and to the re-election of the president.”
It’s important not only because it launched Obama four years ago with a win in the first-in-the-nation caucuses, but because it’s still a tossup state this late in the campaign, according to Iowa Democratic Party Chairwoman Sue Dvorsky of Coralville.
The steady parade of potential presidential candidates “points to the fact we have national status, a national position in the conversation because of our first-in-the-nation status,” Dvorsky said, adding the state is a battleground “election after election.”
Regardless of what political pundits say, Dvorsky says that whatever aspirations the surrogates have in the back of their mind, “what’s coming out their mouth is all about the next 45 days.”
Similarly, a spokesman for Santorum, who eked out a win in the 2012 Iowa precinct caucuses, scoffs at the suggestion the former Pennsylvania senator’s repeated appearances in Iowa have anything to do with future political plans.
“He’s coming out to help like-minded folks who supported him,” Matt Beynon said. “Right now that’s his focus and helping Mitt Romney get elected.”
As for 2016?
“We’re hoping that four years from now Sen. Santorum is helping Gov. Romney run for re-election,” said Beynon, now a Washington-area consultant.
Santorum will be in Iowa to assist The Family Leader’s campaign to boot Iowa Supreme Court Justice David Wiggins from the bench.
Bob Vander Plaats, chairman of Iowans for Freedom, a project of The Family Leader, which is leading the anti-retention campaign, doesn’t think Santorum is coming because he wants to run again in 2016. Santorum and Jindal “are focused on getting conservatives elected and to ensure judicial integrity is the norm in Iowa.”
“Their interest is truly authentic,” he said. They’re not looking down the road.
However, Vander Plaats concedes that if they were looking down the road, lending a hand to the judicial anti-retention campaign would help build good will among Iowa conservatives.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who appeared at a Family Leadership Summit in Iowa in August, will return Oct. 27 for the 12th annual Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition Fall Dinner. Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell was in Iowa earlier this summer, along with Jindal, as Romney surrogates.
On the Democratic side, O’Malley isn’t the only Iowa visitor. Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick was the headliner at the Iowa Democrats’ June Hall of Fame Dinner during their state convention.
Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa will be the keynote speaker at the annual Democratic Jefferson Jackson Day Dinner on Oct. 20.
He and O’Malley were among several oft-mentioned presidential prospects who spoke to the Iowa delegation at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C. Others were Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer and New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand.
The visits can be tricky for Republicans who don’t want voters to think their presence signals a lack of confidence in the Romney campaign.
“I suppose they can parlay it into a bid if they would like,” Vander Plaats said, “but I hope not because that means that President Obama won re-election.”
They also have to tread carefully around local campaign volunteers who might see the visits as a distraction from the task at hand.
If the 2016 campaign has started, Linn County Republican Party Chairman Steve Armstrong isn’t paying attention.
“I’ve got my head down and my nose to the stone,” he said. However, he added, “It wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume” the campaign is under way.
His co-chair, Cindy Goldman of rural Cedar Rapids, doesn’t think Republicans “are taking their eye off the ball,” referring to the 2012 election.
“But it is a good place to come to test the water and get your name known,” she said. For the time being, Golding believes they “are coming because they’re convinced we have to take back the presidency. I don’t see anyone vying for 2016 yet.”
Steve West, a Hiawatha Republican, thinks there is more to the visits than winning the 2012 election.
“The (Harkin) steak fry was all about O’Malley. Christie is coming. I guess he’s decided 2016 might be his time,” West said before the Christie visit.
That’s OK with West. That’s Iowa’s role, he said, pointing out it was Iowans who “started Obama’s motor.”
“People in Iowa are used to talking politics,” he said. “They’re not afraid to talk to politicians.“Maybe we’re spoiled. I think it’s great,” West said.