Some Republicans hope Texas Gov. Rick Perry joins the race for president. (Pat Sullivan, Associated…)
Reporting from Des Moines — No politician ends up by accident in Iowa. Nor in New Hampshire.
So recent appearances in the states by Republicans Chris Christie, Sarah Palin, Rudolph W. Giuliani, George E. Pataki and supporters of Rick Perry are setting off furious speculation about their presidential ambitions and feeding a quadrennial tradition: the search for the elusive ideal candidate, whose attributes seem to exceed those of the flesh-and-blood contenders sweating it out on the campaign trail.
With an incumbent Democratic president, the affliction is hitting Republicans this election cycle. As usually happens, the list of would-be party saviors skips around through the primary season. The latest GOP crush is Texas Gov. Perry, who has drawn a steady stream of potential backers to Austin in between his forays to gauge support elsewhere.
For those seeking the perfect match, it is a lot like high school.
"Republicans are like someone who's been asked to the prom by a variety of different possible dates, but they're still holding out for somebody better," said Dennis Goldford, a politics professor at Drake University.
Surveys of voters confirm the sentiment. This year, the top finisher in an Iowa poll was not an actual candidate but "someone else." Though more recent polling showed former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota jointly leading, neither was supported by more than a quarter of GOP voters. And more than two-thirds of voters who supported a candidate in a recent Des Moines Register poll said they could be persuaded to vote for someone else.
Elisabeth McDonald, 57, is among the dissatisfied.
"I haven't seen one person yet that I am truly interested in voting for," she said, after watching Bachmann speak at a restaurant on the Mississippi River in Muscatine, Iowa.
The motives for the political flirts can be varied — boosting their sagging relevance, collecting chits for a future run or, maybe, becoming the last-minute dream date for 2012.
Perry is hearing entreaties from Republicans who feel he could unify the business, social conservative and "tea party" wings of the party. A group of New Hampshire legislators is traveling to Austin to meet with the Texas governor this week. In Iowa, one pro-Perry group is running radio ads urging people attending the upcoming Ames straw poll to write in his name, since organizers declined to include him or former Alaska Gov. Palin on the ballot because they are not official candidates.
Another group, Americans for Rick Perry, which has eight paid staffers in Iowa and recently opened an office in West Des Moines, is visiting GOP central committees, tea party gatherings, gun shows and county fairs to tout the Texas governor's credentials.
"You get that sense when you talk to those folks, yeah the field is nice, but they're … looking for leadership, looking for energy, looking for that charisma, looking for someone they can get behind," said Craig Schoenfeld, executive director of the group's Iowa operation.
Palin prompted another round of will-she-or-won't-she talk when it was announced last week that she would headline a tea party rally in Waukee, just west of Des Moines, over Labor Day weekend. She caused a similar buzz when she appeared in New Hampshire on the same day Romney formally declared his candidacy there in June, and when she showed up later that month in Pella, Iowa, the day after Bachmann kicked off her candidacy in the Hawkeye State.
But it is unclear whether she is seriously considering a run. She could also, observers say, be using the guessing game to expand her brand and to draw attention to a movie about her time as Alaska's governor and as the 2008 vice presidential nominee. Her Sept. 3 Iowa appearance coincides with the film's move to pay-per-view.
"She can stay in the news and kind of maintain that position as a leader in the tea party, and to some extent, a kingmaker," said Tim Hagle, a political science professor at the University of Iowa. "It maintains her relevance. It maintains her influence."
Former New York City Mayor Giuliani, who has said he is mulling a run, and former New York Gov. Pataki, who has had presidential ambitions in the past, have trekked to New Hampshire in recent weeks. Some suspect they are doing so to maintain a voice.
Pataki is raising his profile "just to keep his name in the news," said Dante Scala, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire. "I don't think there's any more to it than that."
New Jersey Gov. Christie has repeatedly said he is not running for president. But not everyone believes him, in part because he keeps agreeing to meet with people who are urging him to run. A trip to Iowa on Monday led to another flurry of denials.