- - Tuesday, July 29, 2014

This time there likely won’t be much suspense about who’s in and who’s out. If the roster of star-studded speakers at an upcoming conservative conference held in the first in the nation caucus state of Iowa is any indication, jockeying for position in 2016 has already begun.

The conference is called “The Family Leadership Summit” and it’s being hosted on Aug. 9th by a group called The Family Leader, considered by many to be the most influential conservative group in Iowa. The Family Leader’s president is Bob Vander Plaats, who has been on the winning side of the past two Iowa caucuses. First with a little-known upstart named Mike Huckabee in 2008, and then in 2012 with Rick Santorum. He was polling at 4 percent before Mr. Vander Plaats endorsed him late in the process. Just a few weeks later, Mr. Santorum placed second in a controversial photo-finish with Mitt Romney, but weeks later after a recount was certified the delayed winner.

Because he’s on a winning streak, Mr. Vander Plaats’ phone rings off the hook with calls from potential presidential aspirants and/or their simpaticos, which explains why he had no problem assembling what might be the best roster of speakers any conservative conference not called CPAC will have this year.

However, amid a slew of influential thought leaders scheduled to appear, the names that stand out the most represent a who’s who of likely 2016 GOP presidential candidates (in alphabetical order): Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, former Arkansas Gov. Huckabee, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, and Mr. Santorum, the reigning caucus champ.
And they’re all coming for free.

“We don’t pay any presidential candidates anything to come and speak, which is probably why we didn’t get Dr. Ben Carson,” Mr. Vander Plaats told me.
Last year’s summit credentialed more than 80 members of the national media, but this year’s is on pace to easily eclipse that. Fox News, Real Clear Politics, CNN, ABC, National Journal, Time and Sirius/XM Radio are just a few that have confirmed they’re coming to cover the event. Major sponsors include Citizens United, Family Research Council and Rand Paul’s political action committee (the Kentucky senator was unable to personally attend because of a prior family commitment.)

But Mr. Vander Plaats is quick to point out it’s not really him all these powerbrokers are coming to see. Rather, it’s the constituency he represents.

“Our base has been on the winning side the past two times because they do their homework, and when they make a decision to support somebody they are all in,” Mr. Vander Plaats said. “That gives our base and the networks they influence a lot of credibility. The candidate that wants to win the support of these people really has to do his job, and that begins by showing up at events like this.”

This early audition is much different than what we saw in Iowa during the 2012 cycle. Despite huge Republican gains in the 2010 elections, potential presidential candidates were slow to make their presence felt in Iowa. Several potential big names kept conservatives guessing until the last minute about whether or not they would seek the 2012 Republican presidential nomination. They all eventually declined.

Through the early months of the caucus campaign, only Rep. Ron Paul, businessman Herman Cain and Gov. Tim Pawlenty were on the ground seriously trying to organize. Rep. Michele Bachmann didn’t enter the race until late spring, but she went on to win the influential Iowa straw poll just a few months later, which is supposed to be a test of organizational strength. Mr. Perry got in the race even later that summer. Disenchantment with the overall field grew, which lead to the dreaded “flavor of the month” phenomenon as conservatives struggled to find a candidate to coalesce behind as an alternative to Mr. Romney.

This time around, conservatives I talk to are anxious to find a candidate that appeals to the full spectrum of the grassroots — limited government conservatives (the “tea party”), social conservatives and national defense conservatives — so as to avoid another splintering of the base, thus allowing the establishment candidate to win a weak plurality of GOP primary voters before losing the general election. You know, like what’s happened the past two times.

That means the grassroots wants to start vetting candidates earlier, and they want the candidates to take the process seriously earlier as well. Especially with the 2016 Republican National Convention moved up to either late June or early July, which will put even more emphasis on capturing momentum in the early states like Iowa.

It appears the candidates have gotten the message.

I recently had Mr. Santorum agree to guest-host my nationally syndicated talk-radio show. Mr. Paul is barnstorming the state in a SUV this weekend. Mr. Cruz jumped at the chance to be the keynote speaker at a massive gathering of the state’s influential home-school community in the spring. Mr. Huckabee is a regular in Iowa. Mr. Perry has been to Iowa twice in the past two months as well.

That’s a lot of 2016 activity when we’re still more than 90 days away from the 2014 election. In short, these guys are taking full advantage of every opportunity that fits into their schedule to get in front of Iowa conservatives.

The Family Leader’s “Leadership Summit” could be even bigger next year. Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad has publicly declared his desire to get rid of the Iowa straw poll. Supposedly because it puts his favored establishment candidates at an organizational disadvantage in the Iowa caucuses.

However, since Mr. Branstad began his saber rattling, Mr. Vander Plaats placed his summit on the exact same August weekend that the Iowa straw poll is traditionally held. Last year, he even moved it from Des Moines to Ames and the campus of Iowa State University, which is also where the Iowa straw poll is traditionally held.

Could Mr. Vander Plaats be positioning the “Leadership Summit” to take the place of the Iowa straw poll if the governor follows through on his threats? For now, Mr. Vander Plaats is playing it coy.

“We will be hosting a 2015 Leadership Summit,” Mr. Vander Plaats said. “We have not decided if we will make it a straw poll, an exit poll or get insight from an informed and cross-sectioned focus group.”

(Steve Deace is a nationally syndicated talk show host and the author of  “Rules for Patriots: How Conservatives Can Win Again.” You can like him on Facebook or follow him on Twitter @SteveDeaceShow.)

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