- The Washington Times - Monday, December 2, 2013

ALTOONA, IOWA — The contest to become the 2016 Republican presidential nominee is a jump ball in Iowa, where even with the caucuses more than two years away, potential candidates are making the trek to see and be seen by the voters who will decide the first cut.

Pheasant hunts and dinner soirees have attracted current and former governors and members of Congress who want to be part of the conversation when voters start to think seriously about the next White House occupant.

PHOTOS: Iowa is the place to be for GOP as presidential politics gets early start

“The race is wide open and will be for some time,” said David Yepsen, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois, who covered Iowa politics for more than three decades. “Caucus-goers understand their choice is important, and they take it seriously.”

Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the 2012 Republican vice presidential nominee, returned to Iowa for the first time since the election and delivered the keynote address at the 67th birthday bash for Iowa Gov. Terry E. Branstad. He teased the audience by saying, “Maybe we should come back and do this more often.”

The remark generated cheers from the estimated 800 people in attendance.

Republicans are vowing to avoid a repeat of the 2012 presidential campaign, when an extended and bruising nominating process full of flawed candidates may have deeply hurt the chances for eventual nominee Mitt Romney.

It’s unclear how much of a role Iowa, where voters engaged in a messy search for a conservative alternative — at times, any conservative alternative — to Mr. Romney, played in his general election loss to President Obama.

The party leaders, strategists and top-level activists who have been through presidential fights in Iowa are trying to work out a plan for a GOP reeling from two consecutive presidential election losses and President George W. Bush’s image as a big spender.

Some Republicans say a governor should carry the party’s banner because governors have records of accomplishments. Some think one of the party’s young guns on Capitol Hill — Mr. Ryan, say, or conservative Sens. Marco Rubio, Rand Paul or Ted Cruz — should get the nod.

Others say they will wait to decide until they see the political landscape.

“Let’s get to know which candidate seems to be able to reach not only the base, but also beyond that base and put together a winning coalition,” said Brian Kennedy, a former state Republican Party chairman and Romney adviser. “I just think there is complete uncertainty on who might be able to do that.”

Some grass-roots activists say Mr. Romney was a bad candidate, in the mold of 2008 nominee John McCain and 1996 nominee Bob Dole — moderates trying to win over a conservative electorate.

“Do we really want to double down on a losing strategy?” said Robert Vander Plaats, head of the Christian conservative Family Leader. “I mean, this is stupid. How much further to the left do we need to run?”

Romney supporters said their problems weren’t ideological.

“There were a lot of reasons we lost, but Mitt Romney being too moderate was not one of them,” said David Kochel, a Romney adviser.

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