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updated 10/19/2006 11:32:37 AM ET 2006-10-19T15:32:37

The midterm elections may be less than four weeks away, but in the two Brigadoon states of presidential politics, the race for the White House never ceases. So Republican operatives in Iowa and New Hampshire have already begun to turn their attention to the tug-of-war over who will lead their party in 2008.

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While most of the GOP's political establishment is consumed by the increasingly difficult task of maintaining the party's control of Congress, Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney have also been engaged in a low-key competition to sign up talent in these key states for the next campaign. With former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani not tipping his hand yet about making a White House run and Sen. George Allen of Virginia focused on his tough re-election fight, the McCain-Romney rivalry is commanding the attention of GOP activists in Iowa and New Hampshire and is establishing in their minds that McCain and Romney -- in that order -- are the favorites for the party's 2008 nomination.

Like an orchestra tuning up before the overture, these stirrings for McCain and Romney are early and give few indications of what the entire work will sound like. But they aren't faint. The recruitment efforts by both camps send important signals to Republican activists in these key states who are listening for cues about how the race for the GOP presidential nomination will unfold. That campaign will begin in earnest on November 8, the day after this year's election.

Under the guise of recruiting supporters to assist their respective political action committees' efforts in the midterm elections, the McCain and Romney camps traded salvos in late September and early October that almost sounded like presidential campaigns in full battle mode.

For instance, on September 22, McCain's Straight Talk America committee put out a press release announcing that David Roederer, a respected veteran GOP operative in Iowa, had signed on to be chairman of the PAC's state chapter. Five days later, Romney's Commonwealth PAC announced that it had signed up Christopher Rants, the speaker of the Iowa House, as an adviser. A week after that, McCain's PAC proclaimed that it had recruited 13 Iowa state lawmakers to join its Iowa Legislative Advisory Team.

In New Hampshire, the volleys were even swifter. On September 25, the Commonwealth PAC reported that it had enlisted Tom Rath, a Granite State presidential campaign veteran, as a senior adviser. A day later, it named Bruce Keough, vice chairman of George W. Bush's 2004 re-election effort in New Hampshire, as chairman of the PAC's steering committee in the state.

On September 27, McCain's PAC announced that seven New Hampshire county sheriffs were joining its law enforcement advisory committee. And the day after that, it put out a press release touting the news that two former New Hampshire GOP chairwomen, Rhona Charbonneau and Jayne Millerick, were joining the McCain team. And not even a week went by before Romney's PAC unveiled its New Hampshire steering committee, filled with more than four dozen GOP activists from around the state.

All of these announcements are more than just lists of names. They are early indicators of the direction that each of the two could-be campaigns intends to take. "Each side has to make points. And one of the ways you do that is this," said Romney adviser Rath. "They both clearly have each other's attention."

Rath, who has helped run GOP presidential campaigns in the state for decades, says the two 2008 contenders are sending distinct messages with this paper war of press releases. "McCain needs to show that he's the front-runner, that he can be a unifier and sign up people from across the spectrum of the party," Rath said. "And Romney's got to show that he's more than just a pretty face, and go out and organize and fight on the ground."

The McCain sign-ups in Iowa are very instructive in that regard. Roederer is a blue-chip GOP player in the Hawkeye State. He was the chief of staff to Iowa's last Republican governor, Terry Branstad, who served from 1983 to 1999. Roederer also chaired Bush's 2004 campaign in Iowa, when the state swung into the GOP column for the first time since 1988. He's widely respected for his political acumen and pragmatic conservatism.

That won't hurt with Bush loyalists or with Iowa conservatives who view McCain with suspicion. McCain skipped the Iowa caucuses in 2000 and needs help wooing Iowa conservatives, who might well view him as too moderate because of his frequent sparring with Bush and because of some of his policy stands -- support for immigration legislation that includes a new path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, for example, and opposition to amending the U.S. Constitution to ban same-sex marriage.

"Very important messages are sent to the conservative base and GOP activists who were stalwarts in the Bush campaign -- that one of their leaders in Iowa has picked up the McCain mantle," said Iowa state Sen. Chuck Larson, who was a vice chairman of Bush's 2000 Iowa effort and is McCain's key recruiter in the state.

Although McCain's list of 13 Iowa legislators consisted largely of party centrists, it included state Reps. Steve Lukan and Rod Roberts, the kind of bedrock conservatives that most observers wouldn't expect to find supporting the maverick Arizona senator. Roberts, an assistant majority leader in the state House, is particularly noteworthy: He's also a pastor from Carroll and a leader of the state's anti-abortion forces.

Roberts may be just a cog in McCain's nascent Iowa political apparatus, but he could be a critical one. Support from him and as other legislators could be reassuring to Iowans generally unfamiliar with McCain's record, which, Larson pointedly noted, includes a consistent history of opposing abortion rights. "I think one of the threshold issues to win Iowa is that you have to have a strong 'pro-life' voting record. And that's where, as you analyze the candidates, a number of them have a troubling record," Larson said. The unstated but clear message from these McCain supporters is that Romney's less consistent record on abortion rights is likely to be grist for the 2008 mill.

At the same time, the Romney recruits in New Hampshire send the signal that the governor, a relative rookie in politics, may have what it takes to organize a successful campaign for the White House. "There are not a lot of windbags on the list," said Rich Ashooh, a well-connected New Hampshire GOP activist who is currently neutral in the looming 2008 race. "They have a record of making something happen for either a candidate or the party."

That the roll of Romney supporters features veterans of Bush's 2004 New Hampshire campaign is hardly surprising, because Romney's efforts in the Granite State have been guided by two former Bush lieutenants: lawyer Jim Merrill, the chairman of the Commonwealth PAC in New Hampshire who also co-chaired Bush's re-election effort there, and Julie Teer, the PAC's political director, who was the Bush campaign's spokeswoman in New Hampshire in 2004.

Merrill emphatically declined to discuss any 2008 implications of the Romney PAC's state steering committee. "We're focused on 2006, and the governor is focused on 2006," Merrill said. "What may come after that will come after that."

But others read more into the Romney list and how it was assembled. "You'll find a number of Bush people who worked with Julie and Jim: They made sure the governor worked them early and signed them on," said Joel Maiola, who managed Bush's 2000 campaign in New Hampshire and is not aligned with any 2008 contender.

Indeed, in closing the deal for support, the personal connections of these recruiters can be as much of a factor as the potential 2008 candidate himself.

McCain's new Iowa chairman, Roederer, said his longtime ties to state Sen. Larson and Terry Nelson, an Iowan who was national political director of Bush's 2004 campaign and is now a senior adviser to McCain's PAC, were key to his decision to support the senator. Both Larson and Nelson had worked for Roederer on Gov. Branstad's 1990 campaign.

"Had it not been for Chuck and Terry, I probably wouldn't have given McCain much of a thought," says Roederer, who had been skeptical of the Arizonan because of his enthusiasm for campaign finance reform and his disdain for ethanol subsidies. "Chuck called me and said, 'Do you want to give some consideration to McCain?' I said, 'You've got to be nuts.' " But the two Iowans kept talking, and Roederer gradually became convinced that McCain was the 2008 contender best equipped to lead the nation in a time of international turmoil.

Roederer played down his joining the McCain team and cautioned that success in Iowa "is not based on endorsements." But for party leaders and activists who can help build caucus organizations for presidential hopefuls, these endorsements can exert a subtle pull.

"It makes people think these are the front-runners," said Carmine Boal, the assistant majority leader in the Iowa House, who is uncommitted for 2008. "It really does have an effect on people's taking a look more seriously at some candidates."

And for a candidate like Romney, who is little known on the national stage, the impression that he is nipping at McCain's heels can be self-fulfilling. "The question is, who's going to be the alternative to McCain should he falter?" said veteran Iowa GOP operative Doug Gross, who chairs Romney's PAC in Iowa. "Right now I think Romney is doing a nice job setting himself up as the alternative."

Copyright 2012 by National Journal Group Inc.

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