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  1. Florida Politics

As presidential campaigns take on national flavor, Iowa's role in nominating process narrows

DES MOINES, Iowa — Just another day at the Iowa State Fair.

A presidential candidate — Florida's Marco Rubio, but pick any — breezes past food-on-a-stick stands, shakes the hands of startled fairgoers, gazes at farm animals and then grills one, devouring the pork sandwich before the hive of reporters that hovers like a dust cloud.

But behind the familiar spectacle lies worry about Iowa's coveted role in the nominating process.

"It masks over some long-term concern about the nationalization of the presidential campaign," said Matt Strawn, former chair of the Iowa GOP.

Concern is driven by a 17-member crop of Republican candidates and a TV debate structure that has candidates trying to boost their standing in national polls by going on TV — often.

It is the result of unlimited cash flowing to Super PACs that will give contestants the ability to keep going even if they fail in the Feb. 1 caucuses or in New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation primary soon after.

And it is assisted by a number of Southern states that banded together and moved their primaries up to March 1, taking advantage of a shortened calendar that places the Iowa caucuses later than normal.

Iowa, a small and exceedingly white state, has long been picked on by critics. In the six contested Republican caucuses since 1980, the winner has gone on to win the nomination only twice. (Democrats have done better, with the nominee emerging in five out of eight contested elections.)

The 2012 caucus was a bit of a debacle as it initially seemed Mitt Romney won but later it was determined that Rick Santorum prevailed. Santorum, who effectively moved to Iowa, rode Super PAC support deep into the fight against Romney, becoming a trendsetter in the big money era of politics.

A more substantial blow came this year when the Iowa Straw Poll was canceled after several candidates, including Rubio and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, indicated they would not participate. Campaigns complained it was expensive and irrelevant. (See 2011, Michele Bachmann.)

At the fair this year, a TV station carried on with a "corn caucus" that Donald Trump dominated, his canning jar spilling with kernels.

Iowa remains a candidate magnet — no one has ignored it completely — but there's a slipping feeling.

"Are you going to spend more time in Iowa?" a local reporter asked Rubio as he stood in the rain at the fair last week.

He fielded the same question about an hour earlier and explained, with a note of bewilderment, that he had been here about a month ago.

"There are other states that we have to visit as well," Rubio said. "We look forward to coming back quite often."

Rubio has maintained a lower profile, focusing on raising money so he has the resources for a protracted campaign. He spent Wednesday in New Hampshire but there, too, are rumblings about a national dynamic and fewer candidate visits.

"The New Hampshire primary is in peril," Sen. Lindsey Graham said in July, blasting the Fox News debate criteria that allowed only the top 10 polling candidates in the main event — credentials the South Carolina Republican did not meet.

The pressure to perform in national polls has Republicans vying for TV appearances as much as doing the intimate-style campaigning that voters in Iowa and New Hampshire expect. The next debate, a Sept. 16 event hosted by CNN in California, will use similar criteria.

"For the most part, we don't care what your title or station in life is," said Strawn, making a case for Iowa's role in vetting candidates. "We're going to pop you right between the eyes with questions, and the press is going to be right there to get it all down." Absent that, he warned, only candidates with the most money for TV ads will be able to compete.

To keep up his national profile as he emphasizes fundraising, Rubio has made regular appearances on Fox News. A Super PAC supporting him ran ads on the channel that were shown across the country.

Super PACs first left a mark in the 2012 election and are now a must for candidates. Along with related "social welfare" groups, Super PACs rake in unlimited donations while traditional campaigns are limited to $2,700 per donor for the primary.

Outside groups so far have raised at least $255 million for the 2016 campaign — twice the amount candidates directly pulled in, according to a review of totals.

The money gives contenders the ability to keep going if they do not perform well in Iowa or New Hampshire. Trump is currently leading both states largely by his constant presence on TV, muffling out lesser-known candidates looking to emerge from the crowded field. One of Trump's biggest rallies came not in Des Moines or Manchester, but Mobile, Ala.

"He has changed this into a national referendum on anger," said Pat Griffin, a Republican strategist and veteran of New Hampshire presidential campaigns. "This has become a wild, wild West."

Already some candidates are making strategic decisions. "We're running a national campaign," Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, told reporters as his bus arrived in Alabama this month.

Cruz's effort was aimed at the so-called SEC primary, the football-themed name given to the March 1 primaries to be held in a number of Southern states, including Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, Tennessee and Virginia. Florida's primary is March 15.

"It shouldn't be decided by a few votes in Iowa or New Hampshire. Nothing against them — I know they take the race very seriously," Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp was quoted saying in the Washington Post.

Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who has struggled in Iowa and New Hampshire, is looking elsewhere for footing. He campaigned Tuesday in Alaska, which holds its caucuses on March 1, beginning a western swing that would take him to Washington, Idaho, Wyoming and Utah.

Bush has made frequent visits to the early states; he returns to New Hampshire next week for a two-day swing. Yet he, too, is playing the long game. This week he had events in Texas, Colorado, Florida and Virginia and did media interviews in Utah and Alabama. With more money than any other candidate, Bush has the resources to compete nationally.

Despite concerns of a diminished role for Iowa, it still will get outsized attention. As Rubio made his exit at the fair last week, Ohio Gov. John Kasich was getting ready to make his own dash.

"The candidates realize it's not just about who has the most money or can get the most Super PAC support and that it's really about getting support of the grass roots people," said Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, who bumped into Rubio in the rain.

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Alex Leary at aleary@tampabay.com. Follow @learyreports.

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