Iowa's G.O.P. Fears Its Role in Presidential Selection Is Diminishing

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AMES, Iowa -- On the surface, Iowa's Republican presidential caucuses seem healthier than ever: would-be candidates are flocking here mere months after the last White House race ended, drawing sizable crowds and ample news coverage. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas and former Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania were in this central Iowa college town for a Christian conservative conference this month, and Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky has come to the state twice since May.

But Iowa's political leaders, always looking ahead to the next campaign, worry that looks can be deceiving and that the prized role of the Republican caucuses is in jeopardy. Establishment Republicans fear that conservatives have become such a dominant force in the nominating process here that they may drive mainstream presidential candidates away.

That would relegate the caucuses to little more than a test of the party's right-wing sentiment, and would do little to identify and propel the eventual nominee.

"It just creates a self-selecting field," said David Kochel, a longtime Iowa Republican strategist. "The spotlight will still be here, because the Democrats are all going to show up, but with Republicans it could be optional."

New Hampshire is pegged as the more unpredictable of the two kickoff states, prone to rewarding insurgents and providing momentum for campaigns in subsequent states.

It has been Iowa in recent years, however, that propelled conservative upstarts -- Mike Huckabee in 2008 and Mr. Santorum in 2012 -- who ultimately failed to gain mainstream support and go on to win the nomination. The party's eventual Republican nominees, meanwhile, waged less than intense efforts in Iowa and paid no penalty.

That precedent could embolden candidates like Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey and Senator Marco Rubio of Florida to spend their time elsewhere and play down or even skip the state altogether.

"You're going to see conservatives probably not play as much in New Hampshire, and you're going to see moderates not play here," Mr. Santorum said in an interview this month before he addressed the gathering of Christian conservatives here.

That is exactly what senior Iowa Republicans fear. And it is why some in the party are already taking steps to curb one of the more controversial elements of the caucus process: the Ames Straw Poll.

Held every summer before a contested caucus, the poll was intended to be equal parts barbecue, political revival and moneymaker for the state party. But it has become a drain on the campaigns of presidential candidates, and the potential embarrassment of a poor performance offers another reason to stay away.

Party officials were especially chagrined last year after Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, having won the 2011 straw poll, finished in last place in the actual caucuses and ended her presidential campaign shortly thereafter. So now, like a Civil War doctor amputating a gangrenous leg to save the life of a patient, Gov. Terry E. Branstad wants to end the Ames tradition.

"I just think the major contenders are not going to want to compete in an expensive and meaningless process," Mr. Branstad said of the straw poll. "So we need to come up with something better."

But even the debate over the straw poll illustrates the diminished influence of establishment Republicans here. In most states, if a sitting governor decided that a party event was to be terminated, that would be the final word on the matter. But backers of Mr. Paul have taken over the state party, and they are disinclined to do away with the straw poll. Other Iowa conservatives, including Steve King, the firebrand United States representative, are also uneasy about ending the tradition.

"It's unique in American political history, and it would be a shame if there was an effort to undermine it," Mr. King said. "Right now, I expect there will be one."

Mike Murphy, a longtime Republican strategist who has worked on caucus campaigns and Iowa governor's races over the years, likes to compare the famed straw poll here to intractable "land wars in Asia," offering more risk than reward to establishment hopefuls.

"The danger for the caucuses is that they follow the fate of the straw poll in just measuring one sector of the party," Mr. Murphy said. More moderate candidates, he said, may "just let Santorum, Cruz and Bozo the Clown all fight it out."

Adding to the fears of Iowa Republicans is a growing scandal this summer involving a state legislator who is said to have taken money to switch his endorsement from Mrs. Bachmann to Ron Paul, then a congressman, in last year's campaign. Even the whiff of such pay-to-play behavior, party insiders worry, gives those inclined to avoid Iowa an excuse to do so.

Still, Republican officials here hope two things will make it impossible for the presidential contenders to stay away. The first, given what is expected to be a wide-open race, is that the early news attention will be intense. And the second, because Iowa is typically a general-election battleground, is that the eventual nominees may be apprehensive about completely disregarding the caucuses.

"For a candidate to suggest he can't compete here is showing a red flag of weakness," said Matthew N. Strawn, a former chairman of the Iowa Republican Party. "A strong candidate has the opportunity to change the makeup of the electorate. That's what Barack Obama did in 2008, and even Ron Paul did to some extent in 2012." (Mr. Obama won the caucuses convincingly; Mr. Paul, a septuagenarian libertarian, managed to win 21 percent and come in third place.)

Those who want to keep the caucuses relevant were not happy this month when Bob Vander Plaats -- an Iowa Republican and the head of the Family Leader, which sponsored the conference of Christian conservatives here -- said Mr. Rubio would have a hard time running for president in 2016 given his support for changes to immigration laws. Such comments, they said, only further undermine Iowa and its influence.

Mr. Vander Plaats said that he did not want Mr. Rubio to bypass the state -- he invited the senator to his conference -- and that he believed that if Mr. Rubio was to have a chance in 2016, "he needs to come to Iowa."

But Mr. Vander Plaats also noted that Mr. Rubio "was and is getting beaten up" by Mr. King, an ardent opponent of an immigration overhaul, in Iowa.

In the meantime, there is no indication that Mr. Rubio will be returning to the state this year.

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This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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