Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York speaks on Day Two of the Democratic National… (Streeter Lecka / Getty Images )
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The gift bag for politicians who stopped by to chat up Iowa delegates at a breakfast Wednesday included a lapel pin, stationery with a drawing of the state’s iconic gold-domed Capitol – and a fold-up map of Iowa’s 99 counties, a nod to the fact that the race for the 2016 presidential campaign has begun.
The main purpose of the Democratic National Convention may be the reelection of President Obama, but outside of the convention hall, candidates eyeing the open Democratic primary in four years are wooing influential party activists and showering attention on the states that hold the early voting contests that can make or break a presidential run. And few states receive as much attention as Iowa, which holds the first-in-the-nation caucuses.
“I hate to say that we’re used to it, because we really appreciate it and we really pay attention,” said Dennis Roseman, a delegate from Iowa City and a retired university professor. “It’s an honor to be honored with such great speakers. Each one is twice as good as the one before.”
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Or, as Clarksville delegate Kai Brost, put it: “Our Iowa delegation is a little bit spoiled.”
On Wednesday, underneath a white tent in the parking lot of a hotel here, Sen. Mark R. Warner of Virginia, Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley came through, professing their love for the state and its people.
“I can see Iowa from my porch!” Klobuchar said, before highlighting the similarities between their neighboring states. “You have Albert, the world’s largest bull, we have the largest ball of twine. You carve a cow out of butter, we carve princesses. You have a matchstick museum, we have the world-famous Spam museum. You’re a state that makes or breaks presidents, and to invoke the names Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale, we are the state that makes vice presidents that run for president.”
O’Malley, who will headline Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin’s annual steak fry this month -- an indicator that he is seriously considering a presidential run -- reminisced about volunteering for Gary Hart's presidential campaign nearly three decades ago and visiting Keokuk, Muscatine and Davenport.
“In Iowa, one of the things I learned is just how tightly knit rural communities are,” he said.
All three demurred when asked by reporters about their 2016 intentions, and insisted they visited the delegation merely because they were invited.
“I got no plans. I got no plans. I got no plans,” Warner told reporters.
Members of the delegation were not convinced.
“The future is limitless for the Democratic Party. It’s just a progression of fabulous people, so it’s going to be a really, really tough race in 2016, and it's already started,” said Jan Bauer, an at-large member of the Democratic National Committee from Ames. “Oh my gosh, it started on Monday.”
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Monday was the first delegation breakfast, and Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa made appearances. On Thursday, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer are scheduled to speak.
As the state that holds the first voting contest in the nomination race, Iowans are used to intense, repeated face-to-face contact with presidential candidates. The old joke among political wags centers on an Iowan who is asked why he is undecided about a candidate. He’s only met him a handful of times, the Iowan replies.
That’s why seeing who courts the state’s delegation, along with that from New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada, offers a glimpse into the future -- on both sides of the aisle.
In 2004 at the Republican National Convention in New York City, then-Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney threw a party for early-state delegates on the USS Intrepid, a retired aircraft carrier. “It was one of the coolest things we did,” said South Carolina GOP Chairman Chad Connelly.
Eight years later -- last week at the Republican convention in Tampa, Fla. -- Romney was nominated the party’s standard-bearer to face President Obama in the fall.
Romney went above and beyond expectations. At both parties’ gatherings this year, 2016 prospects have reverted to tradition, speaking to delegates, posing for pictures and answering questions, much as they would have to do in the early states if they mounted a run in four years.
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