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Iowa gov to 2016 hopefuls: 'Come early and often'


DES MOINES, Iowa — Though only six months have elapsed since the last presidential election, Iowa's Republican governor is encouraging GOP White House hopefuls to begin taking trips to the Hawkeye State.

Gov. Terry Branstad, a Republican who's been elected to five terms as governor since 1982, told NBC News on Thursday that he was far from troubled by the fellow Republicans who have already started making their way to Iowa in hopes of sewing the seeds of victory in the state's influential, first-in-the-nation nominating contest in 2016.

"I've always had out the welcome mat. We certainly want all candidates that have an interest," Branstad said in an interview in his formal gubernatorial office inside the Iowa State Capitol. "Iowa's kind of a grassroots state. I want to encourage them to come early and often."

It appears as though the governor is already getting his wish. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul will make a highly-anticipated speech on Friday at the Iowa GOP's annual Lincoln Dinner, an event that will let him court some of the party's most influential activists and donors. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is scheduled to travel to Iowa later this month, and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum (who narrowly won the Iowa caucus in 2012) was set to return to the state earlier this month before he was sidelined by an illness.

Though Iowa voters just weathered the deluge of candidates associated with a presidential election year — and much can change before 2016, let alone the 2014 midterm elections — the process of selecting candidates to succeed President Barack Obama has already begun.

Branstad name-checked a variety of Republicans whom he suggested could contend for the party's nomination in 2016: Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former vice presidential nominee and Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, and, of course, Paul and Walker.

"We've got a strong bench," said Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds, whom some Republicans had unsuccessfully wooed to seek the state's open Senate seat in 2014. "They're young and it's diversified, and I think that's exciting. And I think we're going to have a lot of great candidates to choose from."

And while there is no clear favorite heading into the still-very-distant caucuses of 2016, what is clear is that some elements of the nominating process will change by then. Branstad, for instance, has called for eliminating the Ames Straw Poll, a gathering at which Republican activists vote for their early favorite candidates months before of the caucuses.

But the winning candidate — Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann bested the field last time — has struggled to eventually win the nomination in recent cycles.

"In its day, the straw poll was a big celebration and big picnic and whatever, but it's gotten to the point now where a lot of top-tier candidates decide to pass it up," Branstad said. "So it isn't that meaningful, in terms of a test."

The governor also dismissed any suggestion that Iowa might move away from its traditional caucus system in light of a Republican National Committee report earlier this year discouraging caucuses and conventions as nominating processes. Those formats, rather than a traditional balloted primary, sometimes gives impassioned activists more of an ability to sway the outcome.

"I don't think that we could go to a primary without being in a conflict situation with New Hampshire," Branstad said. "And we've always had a wonderful understanding and agreement with New Hampshire that we would have the first caucus, and they would have the first primary. I think that system has worked well, and I'd like to see us keep it."