- The Washington Times - Monday, June 1, 2009

It’s time to start the campaign again.

2012 already?

Yes, 2 1/2 years before Iowans gather for their first-in-the-nation precinct caucuses, early presidential campaigning has begun.

“We had a brief pause for two or three months when people went somewhere warm, and then it starts again,” said Richard Schwarm, a Lake Mills lawyer and former state Republican Party chairman. “Most of the old war horses hear the bell and start responding again.”

Potential Republican candidates who have visited the state include Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who won the GOP caucuses in 2008. More politicians have trips planned, starting with Nevada Sen. John Ensign on Monday, followed by Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and another appearance by Mr. Huckabee.

Several other high-profile Republicans thought to be considering presidential runs, including Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, haven’t visited Iowa since the election.

Of course, politicians typically say their stops in Iowa aren’t related to any presidential ambitions.

Mr. Ensign, for example, will speak as part of a conservative lecture series designed to define the Republican Party heading into next year’s congressional elections. Mr. Huckabee will be the draw at a fundraiser for Bob Vander Plaats, a likely candidate for governor.

Phil Roeder, chief spokesman for the Iowa Democratic Party during the 1988 election cycle, said there’s a long tradition of politicians traveling to Iowa to help others.

“It’s the smoke screen,” Mr. Roeder said. “Every candidate has to keep the expectations in check, and at the same time, it’s a great way to make friends in Iowa. If you’re here to help others and not just help yourself, it gives you a good list to go back to when it’s your turn.”

Or as Eric Woolson, a GOP strategist who headed Mr. Huckabee’s successful Iowa campaign, put it, “That’s the nature of Iowa and the political schedule.”

Campaigning for the caucuses begins earlier with each presidential election cycle, but interest among Republicans could be especially strong this time because of last year’s example, when an underdog first-term senator from Illinois patiently built a huge network of supporters in Iowa, then was propelled by a surprising caucus victory toward the Democratic nomination and ultimately the White House.

“We only have to look at somebody named President Barack Obama to realize that if you do well in Iowa, a lot of other pieces fall into place,” said Republican strategist Bob Haus. “They take their role very seriously, so candidates take Iowa very seriously.”

It doesn’t always work that way, though.

In last year’s caucuses, Mr. Huckabee emerged with a big triumph. But he never could shake his underdog status and finally quit when it became clear that Arizona Sen. John McCain would gain the Republican nomination.

The coming presidential campaign cycle almost certainly will be a Republican show because it’s unlikely any Democrat will challenge Mr. Obama’s run for a second term. Mr. Obama has visited Iowa once since becoming president and has maintained much of his campaign infrastructure in the state.

In his trip Monday, Mr. Ensign plans to focus on western Iowa, where Republicans dominate. Mr. Ensign, a veterinarian, will tour Trans Ova Genetics, an animal reproduction and cloning company in Sioux Center, and will make a perennial campaign stop at the Wells’ Blue Bunny Ice Cream Parlor in Le Mars. That evening, he’ll give his speech in Sioux City.

“I think he’s a rising star in the conservative movement, and I can’t wait to introduce him to Iowa,” said Tim Albrecht, an organizer for the American Future Fund, an Iowa-based conservative advocacy group.

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