DES MOINES, Iowa — Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush on Saturday declared he would aggressively campaign to win the caucuses here, ending any doubt about his participation in the first contest of the GOP primary but also opening himself up to the possibility of a defeat that could severely damage his candidacy.
With Bush trying to win here, the more than 100,000 Republicans in his state who are expected to participate in the Iowa caucuses next February will play an even more important role in winnowing a field that will likely include more than a dozen candidates. And wooing Iowa's activists will become a huge test for Bush, who is lagging well behind in current polls in Iowa, despite being considered one of the leading candidates in the GOP race based on his fundraising strength.
"I'm going to campaign hard here," Bush said at a press conference in Iowa City. "It's my intention to win. Period. I'm a competitive person, my hope is to win any place where I'm competing."
His decision echoes how Hillary Clinton handled Iowa in 2008. Despite some of her aides being wary of the state's liberal activists and floating the idea of Clinton skipping or downplaying Iowa, she opted to campaign aggressively here.
Clinton never won over Iowa's Democrats, and defeating her in a head-to-head contest in Iowa helped vault Barack Obama to the nomination. Bush now faces the prospect of running hard in Iowa and still losing to either Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker or Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, his chief rivals for the nomination and the kind of candidates who could consolidate support in the GOP if either won in Iowa.
Iowa voters have rejected more moderate Republicans like Bush in the past two election cycles, in favor of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (2008) and ex-Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum (2012). Conservatives here are already wary of Bush because of his support for a pathway to legalization for undocumented immigrants and the Common Core education standards. There was some thought he would lightly campaign in Iowa and effectively concede the state to one of the conservatives in this field. Bush could then focus solely on New Hampshire, a state with many more moderate Republicans.
Instead, he is embracing the process here in Iowa. While George H.W. Bush won the caucuses in 1980 and George W. Bush finished first here 20 years later, the number of very conservative, evangelical Christians and Tea Party supporters are likely to outnumber moderate Republicans in 2016, a huge challenge for Bush.
In this campaign cycle, Walker has emerged as the favorite in Iowa, leading in polls and drawing strong enthusiasm from party activists. Santorum and Huckabee are running again, with deep ties to Iowa's evangelical community, and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal are also courting these blocs.
So Bush will face an electorate that may not be favorable to him. And while Romney won about 25% of the vote in both 2008 and 2012 here, even that part of the electorate will be challenging for Bush.
Walker is making inroads with more moderate Republicans, holding a fundraiser on Saturday with Chad Airhart, the recorder in Dallas County and an influential figure in Iowa politics.
Airhart endorsed Romney during the 2012 campaign, but opted to back Walker for 2016 despite courting from Bush allies.
"I really like the governor's populist appeal," he said of Walker.
Bush spent Saturday here, in only his second visit to Iowa since he started running for president. Dogged this week by questions about his views on the Iraq War, Bush told voters in Dubuque, "I'm proud of my brother."
And Bush's trademark stubbornness was displayed on another issue as well. Asked about the presidential straw poll in Boone, Iowa in August, Bush emphatically rejected the idea he would compete in the event, which is a fundraiser for the Republican Party of Iowa.
Straw polls are "not relevant," Bush said.
But the candidate is not writing off Iowa. After the Lincoln Day Dinner in Des Moines on Saturday night, Bush, like the other GOP candidates, hosted a small reception for Iowa Republicans, posing for more than 100 pictures.
Several of the Iowans asked Bush for reassurance that he would be coming to the state more often. He told them each of them yes, repeating his line about being competitive and determined to win here.