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Iowa Caucus Season Gets Off to a Slow Start

Caucus night in Iowa is over 18 months away and no presidential candidates have officially declared, but it’s still something of a surprise to Iowa politicians how little attention from potential 2012 candidates the state has been getting.

National Republicans are slowly starting to trickle into the state for campaign appearances. Most politicians likely to be considering a 2012 bid have made or will make appearances in the state this year, with Newt Gingrich and Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty the most active to date. Gingrich hosted a candidate training session last week, and Pawlenty will return to the state at the end of July to campaign for local candidates in eastern Iowa. A few other potential candidates have visited Iowa as well, including rising Republican star Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.).

But all of these candidates have made only a handful of appearances, and so far only two candidates (former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Pawlenty) are operating state-based political action committees (PACs) this election cycle. Neither candidate has donated directly to the state Republican Party, with Romney donating only to gubernatorial candidate Terry Branstad, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and House candidate Brad Zaun so far this cycle.

Pawlenty’s Iowa PAC is only a month old, but his national PAC has shown little Iowa activity to date. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee is the only one of the group who has donated to a local legislative race, cutting one check for a state senate candidate.

The activity by the 2012ers stands in marked contrast to presidential campaign prep during the 2006 midterm elections. There are still over three months between now and election day, but as things currently stand, Iowa candidates will likely receive far less in contributions from presidential contenders this cycle.

By the end of July 2006, Romney had cut over 75 checks to state candidates and made around 20 donations to county Republican committees. John McCain posted over 20 candidate donations by the end of that month. On the Democratic side in 2006, Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh’s PAC made 30 donations to state House candidates, and Virginia Sen. Mark Warner’s July donations of $25,000 to Chet Culver’s gubernatorial campaign and $10,000 for an Iowa secretary of agriculture candidate dwarf any of this year’s Republican activity.

And candidates this cycle certainly aren’t hurting for money: Mitt Romney’s PACs took in $1.8 million during the last quarter, while Sarah Palin and Tim Pawlenty drew hauls of $865,000 and $723,000, respectively.

State Rep. Eric Palmer (D) noted the relative calm this time around. “I’m surprised that there doesn’t seem to be a strong interest right now,” Palmer says. “So far, at least for me personally, I haven’t seen any sign of that at all. They [potential 2012 candidates] just have not been very active, because in years past when I was running they were stumping for my opponent, and this time it’s just been really quiet.”

“More was going on [in 2006]. And part of it was … it was more of an open call. On the Republican side we didn’t have that same couple of people that were clearly standout folks,” says Tim Hagle, a political scientist at the University of Iowa. “Now we have those bigger names and it may be that those folks don’t feel the need to start as early. Or maybe they felt that starting early didn’t work to their advantage. Maybe because Romney started so early that he peaked too early.”

“What we’re likely to see is that pretty quickly after the November elections and we see how that shakes out, you’re going to have people starting,” he says.

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