CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — The Iowa caucuses are 16 months away, but judging from the way potential presidential candidates are visiting this state, you’d think they were next week.
But White House hopefuls are taking advantage of the fact that next week is the first competitive Senate election here in decades. They’re coming to campaign with the candidates early and often.
Hillary Clinton’s Wednesday with the Democratic Senate candidate Bruce Braley was about electing Bruce Braley. She talked almost exclusively about his bona fides, and the problems with his Republican opponent.
But just the fact that she was here, helping her fellow Democrat, will score points with the local leaders and hard core party voters she will need to back her in 2016 — especially since Iowa was the beginning of the end for her candidacy eight years ago when she came in third in the Iowa caucuses.
Although this time around Clinton doesn’t appear to have as much competition, other Democrats with 2016 buzz have been here too — from Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren to Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley to Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.
On the much more wide open and chaotic GOP side, Republican Senate candidate Joni Ernst can barely go a day without a White House hopeful next to her.
The day we were with her it was Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, who broke his own rule of not picking sides in GOP primaries to endorse Ernst early on, and he’s been here several times since to campaign with her.
“How Iowa goes, the Senate will go. The Senate Majority may very well be decided here in Iowa this year,” Rubio told us in an interview during one of his three campaign stops with Ernst.
And though he too was careful to make his public remarks about the Senate race, helping Ernst win, pressing the flesh with Iowa voters who are used to getting to know their presidential candidates is undeniably helpful.
Rubio said he has visited Iowa three or four times this midterm election year, (but who’s counting) and he’s hardly alone.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul have all made multiple visits to the Hawkeye state in 2014 alone.
Even South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, who said recently he might consider running for president, campaigned with Ernst last week despite the fact that he’s on the ballot in his own state Tuesday.
Paul had the good fortune of being chosen by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a powerful GOP force, to appear straight to camera in their new closing television ad here.
“If you’re a freedom loving, liberty loving voter I urge you to get out and vote for Joni Ernst this Tuesday,” Paul says in the ad.
But sometimes testing the waters can be treacherous.
Though Rubio received several warm greetings with not-so-veiled references to his presidential ambitions, one voter, Jan Larson, was looking for someone else — and told him so.
Larson stopped Rubio when he was working the crowd in Williamsburg, Iowa, to ask about Mitt Romney.
“Can we convince Mitt to run?” Larson asked Rubio.
“I don’t know you’ll have to ask him,” Rubio responded with a smile.
“I did,” Larson said.