Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) speaks at the Florida delegation breakfast… (Kathleen Flynn, McClatchy-Tribune )
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The gift bag for politicians who stopped by to chat up Iowa delegates this week 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 was the renomination of President Obama, but outside the convention hall, candidates eyeing the open Democratic primary in 2016 wooed party activists and showered attention on the states that hold the early voting contests. Few states received as much attention as Iowa and New Hampshire.
"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."
Or, as Clarksville delegate Kai Brost, put it: "Our Iowa delegation is a little bit spoiled."
On Wednesday morning, underneath a white tent in a hotel parking lot here, Sen. Mark R. Warner of Virginia, Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley came through, professing their love for Iowa 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."
O'Malley, who will headline Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin's annual steak fry this month — traditionally an indicator of presidential interest — reminisced about volunteering for Gary Hart's campaign nearly three decades ago and visiting Keokuk, Muscatine and Davenport.
On Thursday, at a breakfast of the New Hampshire delegation, Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy spoke about spending boyhood vacations at Lake Winnipesaukee and Perkins Pond, and seeing bands perform in Sunapee.
"I also have an appreciation for Manchester and the greatness of New Hampshire, its contributions to the industrial revolution … the sacrifices made by the men and women of New Hampshire to make sure our democracy was born, to make sure our democracy was protected," he said.
In addition to appreciation, attention must be paid to local concerns. Klobuchar, speaking to the Iowans, discussed farms and the drought. Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer spoke about his state's and New Hampshire's opposition to a federal identification card, a hot-button issue in a state whose motto is "Live Free or Die."
Several politicians who visited the delegations smiled slyly when asked by reporters about their 2016 intentions.
"'Well, you know, you gotta eat breakfast somewhere," said Schweitzer, who addressed both the Iowa and New Hampshire delegations Thursday morning. "2016? Well, that's a long time from now isn't it? Look, I'm going to be governor of Montana until January 2013,and I am term-limited, so we'll worry about the future when the future arrives."
They professed to be fully focused on their current jobs.
"My future aspiration is to serve my city, the one I was elected to serve," said Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker, who visited the Iowa delegation on Monday and New Hampshire's on Thursday.
Some whose presidential aspirations are pretty widely known denied that anything unusual was afoot.
"I got no plans. I got no plans. I got no plans," Warner told reporters.
Delegates were not convinced.
"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 of Ames. "Oh, my gosh, it started on Monday" at the first Iowa delegation breakfast.
Iowans and New Hampshirites 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 states' delegations, along with those from South Carolina, Nevada and Florida, offers a glimpse into the future.
In 2004 at the Republican National Convention in New York, then-Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney threw a party for delegates from early primary states on the retired aircraft carrier Intrepid. Eight years later, of course, he was the nominee.
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 — or when — they mount a run.