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GOP presidential hopefuls look toward Iowa

Texas Governor Rick Perry has spent nine days in Iowa, and none in New Hampshire.

Eric Gay/Associated Press/File

Texas Governor Rick Perry has spent nine days in Iowa, and none in New Hampshire.

WASHINGTON — Across Iowa this week, a casual observer could be forgiven for believing a presidential election is just around the corner.

Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky just wrapped up a three-day, 10-stop tour of the state, a media throng in tow. Governor Rick Perry of Texas is about to embark on a four-day swing of the state, and four other would-be candidates are heading to a summit with Christian conservatives this weekend.

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In New Hampshire? Cue the crickets.

Possible 2016 Republican candidates have spent nearly twice as much time in Iowa — the first GOP caucus state — as they have in New Hampshire, the first primary state and home of a more moderate Republican electorate.

By Saturday, Republican candidates will have scheduled a combined 51 days sampling the political winds in Iowa, compared with 27 days in New Hampshire, according to a tally kept by Democracy in Action, a nonpartisan website that tracks presidential campaign activity.

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For a party trying to broaden its base — and make an effort to appeal to minorities, gays, and independents — some activists worry that a lopsided emphasis on the more conservative Midwestern state might be a sign of trouble.

At least, that is the argument in New Hampshire, which has often jostled with Iowa for bragging rights.

“By all means a candidate ought to go to Iowa and test the water,” said Fergus Cullen, a former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party. “But sensible candidates are going to come to the conclusion that they don’t have a chance to appeal to a broad electorate there.”

“So you’re going to have this sort of rump caucus that takes place there with a rump group of candidates,” he added. “I just don’t think the Iowa caucus electorate, on the Republican side, is representative of the party.”

The rivalry between Iowa and New Hampshire, increasingly marked by a divide between moderates and conservatives, stretches back decades. The two states have not selected the same Republican candidate in a contested GOP nomination since 1976. Since then, Iowa picked the eventual party nomination winner three times, while New Hampshire elevated the eventual nominee five times.

During the 2012 campaign, 83 percent of Iowa caucus-goers identified themselves as “conservative,” compared with 17 percent who said “moderate” or “liberal,” according to polling of caucus-goers. The New Hampshire electorate was almost evenly split, according to exit polls, with 53 percent saying they were conservative and 47 percent saying they were moderate or liberal.

Iowa caucus-goers were also more likely to support the Tea Party, and almost 6 in 10 said they considered themselves evangelical Christians, which places more of an emphasis on social issues such as abortion and gay marriage.

Perry and four other potential presidential candidates — Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, former senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, and former governor Mike Huckabee of Arkansas — planned to attend a summit of Christian conservatives on Saturday.

“Everyone knows it’s going to be a social conservative crowd and these candidates are going to have to address those issues early on — in a way it forces these candidates to address these issues,” said Craig Robinson, a former political director of the Iowa Republican Party who now runs the influential website the Iowa Republican.

“The biggest problem for mainstream Republicans is, what kind of event can you create to have candidates stay and discuss these things?” he added. “If you said, ‘We’re going to have a debt conference,’ I don’t know how many people would turn out for that.”

The most obvious reason for the early emphasis on Iowa is that the current crop of candidates is more conservative. More moderate candidates — such as former governor Jeb Bush of Florida, Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, or Senator Rob Portman of Ohio — have been far less active in testing the presidential waters.

“The candidates who are most out front at the moment tend to be candidates on the right side of the ideological divide,” said Tom Rath, a veteran New Hampshire Republican strategist. “And they would tend to find a more regular audience in Iowa.”

There are perils to some of the early activity, such as a made-for-YouTube moment this week that highlighted the Republican Party’s difficulty in talking about immigration — an issue that also plagued Mitt Romney’s campaign.

During a campaign event in rural Iowa, an illegal immigrant confronted Representative Steve King, an ardent opponent of immigration reform, who was sitting down for dinner with Paul.

Seconds into the exchange, Paul got up from his seat, grabbed his drink, and left, his half-eaten hamburger still on the table.

King hung around, questioning the young woman on whether she knew English and telling her repeatedly that she and her mother had broken the law. Someone in the background yelled “Go home!”

Another potential trouble spot for the Iowa field: the party may once again hold its straw poll in about a year, which is an early test of strength and requires a strong campaign organization. Among Iowa Republicans, there is still debate about whether they will hold the straw poll next year, after it was criticized as a political sideshow.

In 2011, Representative Michele Bachmann, a Tea Party favorite, won the straw poll and former governor Tim Pawlenty, a more moderate politician who prided himself on his blue-collar roots, came in a disappointing third and immediately dropped out of the race.

The more conservative tilt of Iowa has caused some candidates in the past to skip it altogether. Senator John McCain avoided the state almost completely in 2008, focusing all of his energy on winning the New Hampshire primary. Although Iowa breathed life into Huckabee’s campaign that year, McCain won the nomination.

Romney placed a big bet on the state in 2008 — spending $10 million, hiring a team of advisers, and catering to the conservative base — only to come in a disappointing second. During his 2012 campaign he held the state at arm’s length until just before the caucuses. He came in a narrow second, and then handily won the New Hampshire primary.

Activists in New Hampshire insist they do not feel neglected — yet.

“We’ll be on everybody’s dance cards as of the 15th of November,” Rath said. “In the end, we’ll get plenty of attention.”

Matt Viser can be reached at matt.viser@globe.com.
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