Sen. John Ensign's June 1 trip to Iowa is looking more and more like a day straight out of a White House hopeful's itinerary, a sign that the 2012 campaign is already under way in the Hawkeye State, which hosts the first-in-the-nation presidential caucuses.
The Nevada Republican is flying into Sioux Falls on the last day of the Memorial Day recess before a four-week work period in Congress. He has three stops scheduled before he heads back to the nation's capital: an address on behalf of the American Future Fund's conservative lecture series in Sioux City, a tour of an agricultural research facility in Sioux Center and a meet-and-greet at an ice cream parlor in Le Mars.
Western Iowa is a GOP bastion in a state that has been trending Democratic of late and is typically a key battleground in the GOP caucuses. The Wells Blue Bunny Ice Cream Parlor, where Ensign will host the meet-and-greet, was a frequent stop for caucus contenders in 2008 and has seen many White House hopefuls over the years.
It was AFF that expanded Ensign's visit by adding the two other stops on his behalf. Said AFF spokesman Tim Albrecht, "We thought it would be a great opportunity to introduce him to Iowans on the way to his lecture." He added, "He's a rising star, and a leader within the conservative movement, so it was only natural to highlight his strong record of service to the people of Northwest Iowa."
Ensign is not the first Republican could-be candidate who has visited Iowa this year. On April 22, former New York Gov. George Pataki gave a speech at Drake University in Des Moines that was also hosted by AFF. The former governor confided to at least one Republican activist on the trip that he was still interested in seeking the presidency, even though he terminated his political action committee, the 21st Century Freedom PAC, in February. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, another Republican with his eyes on 2012, paid the state a visit last November.
"Anytime they come to Iowa, there is a reason," said party activist Danny Carroll, who co-chaired the successful 2008 GOP caucus campaign of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.
"The 2012 presidential campaign is starting," agreed veteran Iowa GOP operative Richard Schwarm, who was a senior adviser to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's 2008 campaign in the state and George W. Bush's efforts there in 2000. Schwarm observed that trips like Ensign's benefit all involved: The potential candidates gain stature, GOP activists in the state are energized and funds are generated for local party organizations and Iowa businesses. And Schwarm added that forays like this "give journalists something to talk about."
Indeed, Nevada reporters have expressed an interest in traveling to Iowa with the junior senator to chronicle his inaugural visit to the state.
Despite the campaign overtones of the trip, Ensign spokesman Tory Mazzola stressed, "This will in no way take away from Ensign's duties as a senator for Nevada or as Republican Policy Committee chairman." In fact, Mazzola said the trip will only enhance the senator's work as policy chairman by showing that Republicans have a lot of good ideas in their arsenal.
Scott Bensing, a partner in the Nevada political consulting firm November Inc. and a former executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee under Ensign, is advising the senator on the visit.
"Yes, it is under way and never stops," joked Iowa GOP strategist David Roederer, who chaired the 2008 caucus campaign of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. Roederer said he doubts "anyone" has heard of Ensign in Iowa, making the trip all the more important. "This is what a presidential candidate should do," he said.
Still, the presidential buzz can be distracting, and Roederer joked about the reticence some pols have about venturing to the state: "I don't know if potential candidates are afraid people will think they are running for president by coming to Iowa or think they are coming to Iowa to get married."