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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.