Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad talks with Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) at a reception in Des Moines in January.
It's a year out from Iowa's presidential caucuses, the traditional first test of White House wannabes, and a slew of potential Republican candidates are visiting, courting and raising money.
But ask just about any politico or pollster who they think may emerge a GOP winner in next February's Hawkeye State contest — or even who will ultimately run — and the response will be similar to Steve Scheffler's.
Aug. 11 — Nationally televised candidates' debate in Ames, Iowa (sponsored by Iowa GOP and Fox News): This event comes just two days before the GOP straw poll, which often weeds out the weakest in the field.
Aug. 13 — Iowa Republican Party Presidential Straw Poll in Ames: Mitt Romney in 2007 invested heavily in this daylong, pork-heavy carnival that tests candidates' grassroots support, and won. But Mike Huckabee finished a surprising second and went on to win the state caucuses. Sen. John McCain, the national party's eventual nominee, did not actively compete.
Aug. 11-21 — 2011 Iowa State Fair: A must-attend for presidential candidates — even McCain showed up in 2007 for a quick in-and-out, though he did not actively compete in caucuses.
Early February 2012 (exact date TBD) — Nationally televised candidates' debate in Soux City, Iowa (sponsored by Iowa GOP and Fox News): Last big opportunity for candidates to make their cases to the voters of Iowa.
Feb. 6, 2012 (as currently scheduled) — Iowa Republican caucuses: The traditional first-in-the-nation presidential contest, with races in New Hampshire (Feb. 14), Nevada (Feb. 18) and South Carolina following soon as other early tests.
Aug. 27-30, 2012 — Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla.
"I have no idea," says Scheffler, president of Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition. "This is probably the most wide-open field we've had in decades."
If one could even call it a field yet — so far, it's looking more like an open casting call.
"We are starting slower, compared to four years ago," says Matt Strawn, chairman of the Iowa Republican Party. "There is greater fluidity in the race.
"It's wide-open," Strawn says.
Who's In, And When?
Former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin continues to tease about her presidential ambitions. In a speech Thursday in New York, she said she's "still thinking about" a run.
Mike Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor who won the 2008 GOP caucuses and remains popular among Iowa Republicans, has said he is in no hurry to decide whether he's in.
And the rest of the potential pack, from former governors Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty and one-time House Speaker Newt Gingrich to U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann and ex-Sen. Rick Santorum?
They're left playing an elaborate game of caucus chicken, gaming out whether there will be enough caucus votes (from Tea Party adherents and evangelicals, party moderates and disaffected 2008 Obama supporters) to go around — regardless of what Palin and Huckabee decide.
And they're puzzling out how to woo voters in a new media and technological environment that may favor the unconventional. (Palin suggested Thursday that "going rogue" is the way she'll run. If she runs.)
"This is not the same kind of start that we've seen in the past," says David Yepsen, who covered caucuses for more than three decades as former chief political writer and editor for the Des Moines Register.
Iowapolitics.com, which tracks potential candidate visits to the state since Nov. 4, 2008, says Rick Santorum leads the pack in visits (nine) and days spent (15) in the state so far. Tim Pawlenty had eight visits in the same time period, and Newt Gingrich has been there seven times. Mike Huckabee has visited five times, Sarah Palin and Ron Paul four times each, and Mitt Romney and Haley Barbour twice. Michele Bachmann has visited just once but has two more visits scheduled in coming weeks.
"In past years, candidates were flooding the zone, ramping up with big staffs, hiring people," says Yepsen, now director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.
"There's been a little of that, but I think a lot of Republicans didn't get serious about this race until after the 2010 midterm elections," he says. "They decided that Barack Obama doesn't walk on water, and maybe he can be beat."
Gallup's most recent 2012 election survey does, indeed, indicate that a generic Republican candidate polls nationally as strongly as Obama.
So it's not surprising that the Republican field remains unsettled.
But other surveys also show that the favorability numbers for named potential Republican candidates remain anemic — with, perhaps, the exception of Huckabee. Only he and Romney are seen more favorably than not among a list that includes about a dozen prospective candidates. Palin continues to have the highest average unfavorable ratings.
Poll analysts have been debating the importance of these early favorability measures. Nate Silver of The New York Times argues that the current Republican field — unannounced though it might be — is "on the low end of popularity," and that will be a factor in how candidates are perceived in the coming year.
The Republican Party in Iowa has been portrayed as trending so conservative that a candidate like Romney may be tempted to skip the caucuses.
Huckabee's caucus win in 2008, and his continued popularity, reflect a strong Christian evangelical flavor to the party base. The ouster last year of three state Supreme Court justices who joined in a 2009 decision that legalized same-sex marriage added to the state party's reputation.
So have current efforts by Republican legislators to amend the state constitution to define marriage as between a man and woman. That effort remains blocked by Democrats in the Senate.
But party regulars and state political observers say that while the Iowa GOP trends conservative, it's in transition — much as the national Republican Party.
"There are a lot of new people coming into the fold, and the party is trying to sort out what it is and what it isn't," Yepsen says. "The social conservatives have never had this much energy behind them, and a lot of moderates are just checked out."
"There are a lot of divisions yet to be sorted out," he said.
Other state Republicans say that influential conservative evangelical Bob Vander Plaats' loss last year in the GOP gubernatorial primary suggests that the sharp-right narrative is oversold.
Tom Jensen of the Democratic polling firm Public Policy Polling has said its surveys have shown that "Iowa Republicans aren't that conservative, at least compared to Republicans in the country as a whole."
On The Ground
So, what exactly has been happening on the ground in Iowa — and with all the unannounced candidates?
There is widespread skepticism about either a Palin or a Huckabee run, with no indication that they are organizing in any traditional way. Vander Plaats, a force behind the successful ouster of the Supreme Court judges, was Huckabee's state chairman in 2009. In his role as head of The Family Leader "pro-family" group, Vander Plaats continues to tout the former governor. Palin has been in the state to hawk her book and for a party dinner.
Pawlenty, the former Minnesota governor, has a traditional Iowa caucus campaign up and running, politicos say. Yepsen is among those who see an upside for Pawlenty in Iowa — particularly if there's more than one Christian conservative on the caucus ballot, dividing the evangelical vote and giving the more moderate Minnesotan some room.
Romney is expected to compete in Iowa, though to what extent is unclear. His sights are set on the New Hampshire primary in the days after the caucuses. Romney's religion — he is Mormon — was an issue in Iowa in 2008; but party members note that the state last fall elected a Mormon as its Republican secretary of state.
Gingrich, party members say, is off and running with staff on the ground; Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour has been visiting; and Bachmann and Santorum are courting the party's evangelical and Tea Party branches. Bachmann, who also has New Hampshire and South Carolina visits on her schedule, will be back in Iowa at least twice in the next couple of months.
Some of the more serious candidates have operatives placed in legislative clerkships, waiting for campaigns to begin. By late April, the field is expected to begin to jell: that's when the second fiscal quarter starts, and serious candidates are expected to begin filing campaign organization forms.
"Whoever is going to do well in Iowa has to come here," Scheffler says, "and not just fly into an event where people don't have access."
"They have to engage in the process."