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The first contest of the presidential nominating season takes place exactly three weeks from tonight, the Iowa caucuses. That means there's precious little time remaining for candidates to make their case in Iowa. But the state has been feeling a bit lonely this campaign season. Today, only Rick Santorum, an underdog, was visiting the state. And overall this year, candidates have spent less time in Iowa than in past presidential campaigns. NPR's national political correspondent Don Gonyea explores why.
DON GONYEA, BYLINE: There are places across Iowa where you just know candidates are going to pass through to shake hands and to make an impression. Like Baby Boomers restaurant near the state capitol in Des Moines. Owner Rodney Maxfield says the candidates are still dropping in, but...
RODNEY MAXFIELD: It's definitely been a lot slower. I'm assuming that it's going to get bigger, but it's definitely slower.
GONYEA: Yesterday and today, three weeks away, there's one candidate in the state, Rick Santorum. Does that surprise you?
MAXFIELD: Yes. I think they all should be here.
GONYEA: Seated at the counter finishing his coffee is 30-year-old Josh Seddon. He says he'll participate in the caucuses, but described his level of involvement this way.
JOSH SEDDON: Not hot and heavy yet. I haven't really gotten into it yet. And it may have something to do with candidates usually are in and out of the city quite a bit more.
GONYEA: But he quickly adds there's still plenty of time to get up to speed on who's who. Also here is 70-year-old Darrell Kearney, a local Republican Party official, who's proud to say that he was a youth coordinator for Barry Goldwater back in 1964.
DARRELL KEARNEY: I've met every presidential candidate since Ronald Reagan in 1980.
GONYEA: Two of this election's leading candidates are those least likely to be found in Iowa this year: former U.S. Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. Here's Kearney's take on that.
KEARNEY: Romney was here a lot in '07 and '08. Gingrich has been here a lot over the years. I mean, I first met Gingrich in '88 when he was campaigning for Jack Kemp. A lot of people know him and know Romney.
GONYEA: There's another reason for fewer Iowa appearances, says Republican strategist John Stineman, candidates need to raise money. The Gingrich campaign, for example, has huge debts to pay off even as it spends more.
JOHN STINEMAN: There's only so much money you raise in Iowa. And to be honest, there's not very much. So you have to go somewhere to make sure that you're going to get the coffers full enough to buy the ads and fill the mailbox the way you need to for your campaign.
GONYEA: At Drake University, political scientist Dennis Goldford says all those televised debates have also had an effect.
DENNIS GOLDFORD: They've given all sorts of candidates the visibility and press coverage that they normally would get by being in Iowa with feet on the ground participating in the caucuses. We don't know yet whether this is the beginning of a long-term change in the significance of the Iowa caucuses.
GONYEA: At a restaurant near campus, voter Paul Levenworth, an independent who has registered Republican so he can go to the caucuses, says he recognizes that candidates have to spend time in New Hampshire and South Carolina.
PAUL LEVENWORTH: It's a national campaign, so they're involved someplace. And they certainly have a presence in Iowa whether it is television, whether it's multiple phone calls we get at dinner time every night from various candidates or polling people.
GONYEA: Still, voter Desda Saunders says she hopes all of this isn't a sign that the Iowa caucuses are losing their clout.
DESDA SAUNDERS: I think it's kind of sad because Iowans enjoy that and likes to be a big player in the whole process of nominations of candidates.
GONYEA: The candidates will be stepping things up in person in Iowa later this week. There's a debate in Sioux City on Thursday night. And even if it comes late, the days between Christmas and January 3rd are still likely to feel just like caucuses past. Don Gonyea, NPR News, Des Moines.