Republican Candidates Cast Early Focus on Iowa

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AMES, Iowa — Come early and come often. That's the advice repeated to presidential candidates seeking to compete this state's first-in-the-nation caucuses. This week, several potential 2016 Republican presidential candidates did just that.

The Iowa caucuses may still be more than 17 months away but the early jockeying here is well underway.

Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul embarked on a three-day swing across the Hawkeye State. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio headlined a fundraiser for Joni Ernst, the GOP candidate running for the U.S. Senate. And late Saturday afternoon — in addition to several retail stops — Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee spoke at the annual Family Leadership Summit.

"It is such a privilege to be here," Jindal told the gathering of nearly 1,000 conservative Christians.

"This feels to me almost like a straw poll week with the number of candidates crisscrossing Iowa," Dennis Goldford, a professor of politics at Drake University, told NBC News. "It is a year ahead of normal. This is the kind of activity you would find in the year immediately preceding the caucus, not before the midterms."

Goldford believes there are two main reasons for the early plethora of candidates this cycle: "Number one, there is no one next in line to be the Republican nominee, which means the field is wide open at this point," and number two, “Republicans are struggling to redefine themselves as a party so you are getting lots of different voices.”

A wide sector of those voices was on display Saturday on the campus of Iowa State University where the Republican Party of Iowa’s Straw Poll will likely be held just one year from now.

Cruz — who received a warm reception at the event — focused his speech on the "seven major victories" Conservatives have won in the last two years, including the Hobby Lobby Supreme Court ruling and the FAA quickly lifting the ban on flights to Israel.

"There is a very simple model for how we win. We stand up and we tell the truth. We shine the light of truth and we empower the American people," Cruz told the crowd. "The lesson from these seven victories is there is a path to win. It is not standing for nothing and giving in to the ways of Washington."

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Cruz bumped into Jindal at the Iowa State Fair earlier Saturday on his way to the famed political soapbox. Perry will speak at the fair on Tuesday.

"I spent this morning at the Iowa State Fair, that is fantastic," Cruz said, recalling his first experience with a pork-chop-on-a-stick.

Jindal, making his third trip to Iowa in the past year, spent the majority of his speech focusing on the American dream, and linking it to his personal story. He drew laughs at several points during his remarks as he made jabs at President Barack Obama.

"How many moms and dads have told their little children, ‘anybody can grow up to become President of the United States’? Now, unfortunately, we learned how true that was in 2012 and 2008," the Louisiana governor said.

Jindal, who is from the South, also had harsh words about the ongoing immigration problem.

"I have a very simple message for the president of the United States: We don't need a comprehensive bill, we don’t need another thousand page bill. He simply needs to man up. He needs to secure the border; he needs to get it done today. No more excuses. No more delays," Jindal said.

Texas Governor Rick Perry echoed a similar message.

"Do the things that are enumerated, like defend the border, Mr. President. It is there. It is a constitutional requirement," he said. "The message to Washington, the message to the president of the United States is clear: if you will not secure the border of our country then the State of Texas will," Perry continued.

Perry, who had a disappointing fifth-place finish in the 2012 caucuses, has admitted to trying a new approach this go-around. He is making an effort to visit the state more to get to know Iowans.

"The future of this nation is up to you, it belongs to you, you have the power to save America and to make America strong again," Perry said as he walked to the front of the stage with his fist in the air. "So roll up your sleeves, let's get to work and make America great again."

"This feels to me almost like a straw poll week with the number of candidates crisscrossing Iowa,"

Santorum, who won the GOP Iowa caucuses in 2012, announced during his speech that he would be taking a trip to Israel this month.

"We need leaders who understand the threats that confront this country," Santorum said. "We need leaders who are willing to stand up and fight for our values, not just in this country, but fight for our values around the world because if we don't fight for those values around the world we will lose around the world, and they will end up here causing us problems."

The 2008 caucus winner, Huckabee, remarked heavily about the "dangerous times" both domestically and abroad with situations in Israel and Iraq. A spiritual transformation, he argued, is the only solution.

"While I realize that many of us in this room are very focused and interested in politics, as we should be, we need to be praying that there is more than just a political transition in this country," Huckabee said. "We need to be praying for a spiritual transformation in this country because what has to happen first in America is that we get our hearts right, and then we will get our politics right."

Several other potential 2016 candidates were invited to speak at the annual faith gathering this weekend but did not accept: Rubio, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. Paul did not attend but sent a video message.

The caucuses are still more than a year away — with plenty of time for candidates to visit — but Goldford says it does pay off to come early and often to Iowa.

"It doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll win the caucus, but it pays off because people get a real sense of who you are as a candidate," he said. "You get to go out and really test your message, your ideas."