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Talk to many people in Iowa and they seem to have this uncanny ability. They know the agendas of presidential candidates by heart. They know their habits, their movements. That's because they get to spend so much time with them. Campaigning begins in Iowa long before most people think about the next election. NPR's Tamara Keith spent the last week or so in Iowa meeting party activists. Her conclusion: it's on, at least on one side.
TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Over the weekend, there was what can only be described as a Republican cattle call.
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KEITH: OK, that's not what it really sounded like at the Iowa State Fairgrounds.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Please welcome New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Mike Huckabee, Jeb Bush, Rick Perry, Ted Cruz, Lindsey Graham, Rick Santorum, George Pataki, Scott Walker.
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KEITH: Six hours later, the not-officially-declared but all but certain GOP hopefuls were on the road for meet-and-greets and various campaign-style events. For former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, the destination was a Pizza Ranch restaurant in Cedar Rapids.
GOVERNOR JEB BUSH: Thank you all for coming. I thought we were having pizza, so that's why I came.
BUSH: I don't know what you guys are doing. But I'll shake as many hands as I can, and then I'm heading back to Miami. Thanks for letting me come. I'll see you back here a lot.
KEITH: He'll be back a lot, he said. Bush has already hired a top Iowa political consultant to run his eventual campaign, and he's far from the only Republican scooping up staff, reserving office space and building enthusiasm among Iowa GOP activists.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Hey, Jeb, you're a little taller than I am, bud.
BUSH: I know.
KEITH: Bush took questions for about 30 minutes in a beyond-capacity back room at the pizza buffet. And as he spoke, a woman named Joni Scotter sat in the second row and glowed.
JONI SCOTTER: You know, I'm a woo-hoo girl. I love politics so much.
KEITH: And as a Republican in Iowa, she's in luck.
SCOTTER: I have really met every candidate, pretty much.
SCOTTER: Already, yes.
KEITH: Except for Bobby Jindal. Scotter thinks she knows who she'll support, but she isn't saying.
SCOTTER: We've got so many candidates out there that are so exciting, and they take my breath away.
KEITH: Compare that to what's happening with the Democrats...
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KEITH: OK, that's not really what it sounds like. Caroline Koppes is a retired teacher and Democratic super volunteer.
CAROLINE KOPPES: It's pretty quiet right now.
KEITH: That's the message I got from, well, just about every Democrat I talked to in Iowa.
SCOTT BRENNAN: We're seeing activity on the other side, but not as much on our side. And so we just want some attention.
BRET NILLES: People start to get anxious when all they see are Republican candidates.
KURT MEYER: I can't say that I'm hearing that there's a lot of excitement.
LINDA NELSON: Who's in? And where are they? And how soon are they coming?
KEITH: Those were Scott Brennan, Bret Nilles, Kurt Meyer and Linda Nelson. She's the Pottawattamie County Democratic chair. Nelson says she's getting a lot of questions from her fellow Democrats, who remember fondly the electricity of 2008. There was a whole crowd of serious Democratic contenders competing for their attention. This year, they are still waiting for a sign.
NELSON: You know, the big elephant in the room, the nose not under the tent yet, is Mrs. Clinton.
KEITH: Behind the scenes, the former first lady and secretary of state has been bringing on staff. Her people are making calls, and operatives here expect a campaign infrastructure to pop up soon. But for the local activists like Nelson, it's just been a lot of watching, and waiting and reading unflattering stories about emails and foreign donations to the Clinton Foundation.
NELSON: With her not making an announcement, not just giving us a direct signal that she will be running, then others are, as we know, are not getting in. And so it's just holding up the whole process. And as a county party chair, I mean, this is how we build our party.
KEITH: The party uses events with candidates to raise money and to recruit volunteers who during the general election will make calls and knock on doors. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders is holding events, but he's not even really a Democrat. Former Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley has one operative on the ground in Iowa and four events in the state scheduled over the next month. But by Iowa standards, less than a year from the caucus, that's the equivalent of...
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KEITH: And the Democratic activists here worry if there isn't a real fight, that could be the sound right through 2016. Tamara Keith, NPR News, Des Moines.
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