- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 24, 2014

While most of his potential rivals for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination have been busy barnstorming the early primary states, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has been missing in action in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Mr. Bush has not paid a visit to either state, nor does he have any immediate plans to visit.

That has raised some questions about his political future and puts him at odds with the likes of Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who hasn’t let an indictment for alleged abuse of power stop him from logging more time in key primary states.

Over the past two weeks, Mr. Perry has been on the ground in Iowa and in New Hampshire as he looks to rebound from his disappointing 2012 presidential campaign and test the waters for a second run. The Texas governor was in New Hampshire again on Friday, while insisting he still hasn’t decided definitively whether he will run in 2016.

But showing the flag, more than two years before the presidential vote, in key states is seen as one measure of seriousness and commitment by potential candidates.

“Making an early presence in New Hampshire is critically important for the future,” said Michael Dennehy, a New Hampshire-based GOP strategist who is advising Mr. Perry. “Waving the flag for state or local party committees and conservative groups and helping them raise money will go a long way to developing relationships with key leaders that could serve as the nucleus of a campaign team. The earlier start you get, the easier it is to organize when a presidential campaign officially kicks off.”

The opening primary states have seen a flurry of activity from a slew of likely presidential contenders, who have used the visits to score headlines and hobnob with local activists who could become the backbone of their presidential bids.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton plans to join the mix next month when she and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, headline retiring Sen. Tom Harkin’s annual steak fry — the largest event this year for Iowa Democrats, who are looking to defend the veteran lawmaker’s seat in the 2014 election.

Mrs. Clinton has refused to say whether she plans to run but is widely viewed as the clear favorite to walk away with the Democratic nomination in 2016.

Vice President Joseph R. Biden has visited both Iowa and New Hampshire once over the past two years and is seen as Mrs. Clinton’s biggest threat. Former Virginia Sen. James Webb Jr. also renewed speculation that he might take a crack at the Democratic nomination by visiting Iowa last week and announcing plans to visit New Hampshire.

The political calendar also gives 2016 hopefuls a ready excuse to visit critical states this year.

“We have huge opportunities for these people to kind of dip their toes in the waters, because we have an open U.S. Senate race, two open congressional races and you can help [Gov.] Terry Branstad with his re-election,” said Craig Robinson, a former GOP operative who now runs the Iowa Republican website. “So you can come to Iowa and make all these excuses [like], ‘Oh, I am here to do this, and I am here to do that,’ but obviously, you are here for yourself nine times out of ten.”

Mr. Bush is the most notable outlier among the likely GOP contenders.

Kristy Campbell, Mr. Bush’s spokesperson, said that the ex-governor does not have any trips planned to either Iowa or New Hampshire.

Ms. Campbell, though, pointed out that he hosted fundraisers for Mr. Brandstad in Miami and for New Hampshire Senate candidate Scott Brown in Boston.

And Mr. Bush plans to host a September fundraiser in Tampa for candidates in key Senate races, including Iowa Senate candidate Joni Ernst, she said.

Whatever the case, polls show that Mr. Bush is well positioned in the early primary states if he decides to run.

He is running second behind former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee in Iowa and third behind New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul in New Hampshire.

“The playbook is different for every candidate,” Mr. Robinson said. “I don’t think there is any problem for Jeb Bush that he hasn’t been here. For those people who want a Mitt Romney to run again, I think Jeb offers them a different vehicle to do it with.”

“I have no doubt that Jeb would do well in Iowa if he should decide to engage,” he said.

Action in Iowa

Most of the action has been in Iowa, which has seen 40 visits from Republicans flirting with 2016 bids, according to the latest tally from Democracy in Action.

Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas kicked off August by attending a fundraiser for Mrs. Ernst, who is running against Democrat Rep. Bruce L. Braley for Mr. Harkin’s seat in one of the nation’s most-watched Senate races.

Two days later, Mr. Paul dropped into the state and attended ten events, including the opening of five Republican Party of Iowa offices.

Mr. Cruz, Mr. Perry and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal spoke at the Family Leadership Summit in Ames, an annual gathering of social and religious conservatives that also featured Mr. Huckabee and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum — the winners of the 2008 and 2012 Iowa caucuses, respectively, which mark the beginning of the nomination contest.

Several of the likely contenders also swung through the state fair.

While there, Mr. Cruz, who has made the most visits to Iowa since 2013, took in the infamous butter cow and gobbled down a pork chop on a stick.

The action among Democrats has been less feverish, as many wait to see whether Mrs. Clinton takes another crack at the nation’s top office.

Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley has made two visits to Iowa — the most of any possible Democratic contender.

Though the nomination race does not kick off for roughly 500 days, Dennis Goldford, political science professor at Drake University and co-author of “The Iowa Precinct Caucuses: The Making of a Media Event,” said that the blast of activity in the Hawkeye State has already given it the feel of a presidential election year.

“It is astounding how early it is,” Mr. Goldford said, adding that the events are already drawing interest from national media outlets, which in turn encourages the candidates to show up. “I always say, nothing is set in concrete and, at least political speaking, the concrete hasn’t even been poured yet.”

“It is that early,” he said, “but still, when it is a pretty wide-open field, it is never too early in that sense.”

Mr. Goldford also noted that the possible candidates who have spent the most time in Iowa are competing for the same bloc of the electorate: Christian conservatives and tea partyers that punch above their weight in Republican primaries.

The action will continue in Iowa as Dr. Ben Carson, who recently formed a political action committee and selected the man who would run his campaign, will visit the state and host a fundraiser Monday night for GOP congressional candidate Dr. Mariannette Miller-Meeks.

• Seth McLaughlin can be reached at smclaughlin@washingtontimes.com.

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