WEST DES MOINES, Iowa -- Iowa's presidential caucuses long have been the first event in the nominating process, but for Republicans, they lately have been a poor indicator of future success. The state's quadrennial GOP straw poll has been even more discredited, an event that no longer draws some of the top candidates.
All this has raised doubts about whether Iowa's presidential process represents a true test of Republican sentiment or merely a competition for dominance among social and religious conservatives. As a result, Gov. Terry Branstad, R, and others are taking steps to try to preserve the state's role as a presidential proving ground for candidates from all wings of the party.
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Branstad has made it clear for some time that he thinks the straw poll should be abandoned, and he is now talking about replacing it with regional festivals for GOP presidential hopefuls. Reaction has been mixed.
This spring, he engineered a takeover of the Republican Party state central committee. That came after the resignation of controversial state chair A.J. Spiker, who was a supporter of Ron Paul in 2012 and has since joined up with Sen. Rand Paul's political action committee. Branstad's moves to reshape the party machinery "prevented the Iowa caucuses from becoming the Iowa straw poll," said Tim Albrecht, a former gubernatorial spokesman and now a GOP strategist.
The internal maneuverings are just one indication of how fluid things are in Iowa as activists begin to size up their options for 2016. Candidate visits began months ago and continue apace. But at this point, the race remains shapeless and unpredictable.
A recent in-depth conversation with a half-dozen Republican activists in suburban Des Moines underscored just how wide open things are.
The small group was not representative of the party as a whole. Most would fall into the category of mainstream or establishment conservatives, not tea party activists. But their views seemed to echo the concerns of others in the party hierarchy about finding the right kind of candidate to lead their party in 2016.
These Republican activists see their party divided along ideological lines -- "almost two separate parties," one person said -- but they are optimistic about their chances in 2016. They said they are looking for someone with appeal across the conservative ideological spectrum.
"The Republican Party has to become the big tent party or, despite the fact that this is a country wanting change, we could lose if we don't become more inclusive," said Christina Taylor, 43, a physician.
"Sometimes what it takes to unite us is the situation we're in now, where a lot of people within each faction of the party have a sense of despondence about the economy and feel as though their constitutional rights are being challenged like they haven't been challenged before," said Charles Schneider, 41, a lawyer and state senator. "I'm hopeful that we'll be able to use the current situation to help unite the different factions."
Some of these activists said they see executive experience, whether in government or business, as an essential requirement -- and also the strength of personality to deliver the conservative message.
"We have a great opportunity in 2014 and 2016," said Tyler DeHaan, 31, an investment wholesaler, who added that he wants a candidate who is charismatic. "There is an opening here . . . . We need to work on our messaging, and I think it got a little lost in 2012."
"We need to make some fundamental structural changes to our country," Schneider said. "We need to see someone who has made some structural change working with people in the opposite party to get it done."
As the group scrolled through the list of potential candidates, it was clear that they are still shopping. Former Florida governor Jeb Bush is seen as someone with the kind of executive experience that some are looking for. "But at the same time, his last name is going to be an asset and it's also going to be a liability," DeHaan said.
Schneider said he questioned whether Bush could energize the base as much as someone like Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker or Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., draws interest, but there were questions about whether his support for comprehensive immigration reform would disqualify him with a large part of the party's base.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Tex., has energized the base of the party, but Lisa Schneider, 41, who is an event coordinator at the governor's residence and is married to Charles, questioned whether his appeal was broad enough.
The same was said of Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, the past two caucus winners. Both would have strong support to start, but could they truly unite the party?
Former congressman Ron Paul of Texas finished third in the 2012 precinct caucuses, which means his son Rand has a built-in advantage, if he runs. The West Des Moines group wondered whether he could expand his appeal beyond his father's supporters.
Taylor said New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie "fascinates me" but worried that his "my way or the highway" style would prove too polarizing. She also said she was "extraordinarily impressed" with Ben Carson, a Maryland neurosurgeon, after hearing him speak at a conference.
Things are so wide open here in Iowa that there is even room at this early stage for Texas Gov. Rick Perry. Chad Airhart, 37, the Dallas County recorder, said he heard Perry speak recently in Iowa. "I went into that remembering what I saw in the 2012 caucuses and didn't have real high hopes," he said. "I left impressed, thinking that if I had seen that guy in 2012, I might have given him a chance."
The conversation left one clear impression. In a state famous for sizing up candidates early, Republicans are looking for a true conservative and a winner. The party here appears headed for an unpredictable caucus contest, if the party leadership can persuade everyone to participate.