- 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.

“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.

Whatever the conclusions about 2012, it’s clear that Iowa will remain a key player in the nomination process.

A little more than a week after last year’s election, Mr. Rubio, a freshman senator from Florida, parachuted into Iowa to deliver the keynote address at Mr. Branstad’s 66th birthday party.

Kentucky’s Mr. Paul has made three trips to the state so far. If he chooses to run, he will be able to tap into his father’s loyal band of followers from 2012.

Mr. Cruz of Texas also has been to Iowa three times. Last month, he revved up the crowd at the annual state Republican Party fundraiser, went on a pheasant hunt with Rep. Steve King and scored an endorsement from Jamie Johnson, who ran Rick Santorum’s victorious campaign in Iowa in 2012.

Mr. Vander Plaats, who has endorsed the Iowa winner in the past two presidential election cycles, said Mr. Cruz would be the man to beat if the election were held today.

“He would lap the field,” he said, adding that the one person who could challenge him would be former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who won the 2008 caucuses and headlined a pro-life event in Des Moines in November.

Mr. Branstad said the party should nominate a governor.

“I think we have some great Republican governors who have been real leaders,” Mr. Branstad told The Washington Times, pointing to Govs. Chris Christie of New Jersey, Scott Walker of Wisconsin, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Rick Perry of Texas.

Asked about Mr. Cruz, he said the 42-year-old lawmaker has brought “youth, energy and ideas into the party.”

“I am very welcoming to him, but I am more impressed with his governor because his governor has a record of attracting business and jobs,” he said, alluding to Mr. Perry.

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