- Associated Press - Monday, January 4, 2016

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - It’s been a year of town halls and weekend forums and lunchtime meet-and-greets for those who would be president, with nights spent sparring in televised debates and endless days fundraising to pay for TV ads, direct-mail fliers and organizers to get out the vote.

All of it is aimed at people like Jocelyn Beyer, a Republican from the small town of Sully in rural central Iowa, who says despite the many months of political clamor, she’s only just now starting to think about her vote for the White House.

“I can’t say I’ve paid much attention,” Beyer said. “The moral issues are what I focus on. If I had to vote today, I’d vote for Ted Cruz.” The Texas senator is atop the pack in Iowa, home to the leadoff caucuses on Feb. 1.

For all the attention showered on early-state voters in the past year by candidates, their unpaid volunteers and high-dollar ad-makers - and, yes, journalists too - the truth is that what happened in 2015 was only the pregame show.

The race for the White House starts this week in earnest, as voters such as Beyer begin to tune in and the candidates try to win them over during a four-week sprint to the Iowa caucuses.

“The race is still fluid,” said Beth Myers, who managed 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney’s campaign and supports former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush in 2016. “There’s still a twist or two in this primary story that we don’t know yet.”

Where to begin?

It’s easier to start with the Democrats.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent, hopes an upset in Iowa and a victory in the New Hampshire primary a week later will dent the apparent inevitability of front-runner Hillary Clinton. Wins in the first two states for the former first lady, New York senator and secretary of state would all but cement her place atop her party’s ticket.

There is no such clarity in the Republican race. Despite shedding five candidates before New Year’s Day, this contest is an unpredictable mix of a dozen hopefuls with vastly different visions for the party and the country.

Cruz spent 2015 quietly building a traditional campaign apparatus and will kick off his month with a tried-and-true bus tour - six days, 28 cities - of Iowa’s most fertile ground for Republicans. Candidates often try to recruit a political leader to stand for them in each of Iowa’s 99 counties. Cruz has also sought a pastor in each to do the same, working to corner the market on evangelicals who make up a significant part of the GOP caucuses.

“For Cruz, it’s about the complete consolidation of the evangelical wing to snuff the life from the others,” said Phil Musser, a Republican consultant who is not affiliated with any campaign.

While Cruz has edged ahead in preference polls of Iowa voters in recent weeks, nationally, he still trails the unquestioned political star of 2015: Donald Trump.

The billionaire real-estate mogul has so far forgone the grind-it-out approach in favor of free media and a few rallies a week before largely adoring crowds. The unknown for Trump: Are the thousands who pack the bleachers at his rallies likely voters, or merely fans entertained by his show?

Neither Cruz nor Trump will win the nomination with a victory in Iowa, but caucus-goers probably will deliver a verdict on whether several GOP candidates continue on to New Hampshire. Count former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who won the caucuses in 2012, and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, the 2008 winner, in that group. Maybe retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, too.

Carson was an early favorite in Iowa among evangelical and tea party conservatives, but he enters January without several members of his senior staff. They quit last week and questioned his readiness for the White House on their way out.

Those with more traditional political experience will spend the month trying to bridge the gap between the anger and frustration that’s powered Trump’s rise and the Republican establishment, which desperately wants to win after eight years out of the White House.

For Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Bush, as well as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Ohio Gov. John Kasich, that likely means lighting the match with a strong finish in Iowa, then igniting their bid with a win in New Hampshire.

“The most important thing to watch is what happens in New Hampshire,” said veteran GOP presidential adviser Charlie Black. “That’s going to set the field in terms of a mainstream candidate.”

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Associated Press writers Jill Colvin and Kathleen Ronayne contributed to this report.

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Follow Thomas Beaumont on Twitter at: https://twitter.com/tombeaumont

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