Kevin Lamarque / Reuters
Senator Rand Paul, R-Ky., gestures at the Conservative Political Action Conference at National Harbor, Maryland, in this March 14, 2013 file photo.
CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul doesn't know if he's a favorite in the 2016 Iowa caucuses, but he warned his would-be Republican rivals for president -- don't skip Iowa.
"I tell 'em good luck. I don't think it works," Paul said Friday, three years out from the official caucuses. "There were candidates several years ago who said, 'I'll just skip the first four and start in Florida.' That didn't work so well."
The last Republican nominee to win Iowa was George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004. The winner of the traditionally first nominating contest, however, does become an automatic contender for the GOP presidential nomination. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum won the caucuses by 34 votes in 2012 over eventual nominee Mitt Romney. Santorum's win catapulted him into the top-tier of GOP contenders.
Paul, the Tea Party-aligned freshman senator who's set to speak before a major Republican fundraising dinner here Friday night, said that although he thought Iowa's caucuses were somewhat "confusing," they're an essential stepping stone to any would-be nominee.
"There's a great deal of momentum that comes from Iowa," he added. "The winner In Iowa becomes a contender, even if they weren't a contender going in — if they win Iowa, they automatically become a contender, because it buoys them going into New Hampshire and the other states."
Paul's trip to Iowa marks an unofficial beginning to the jockeying for the Republican nomination in 2016, which starts with the state's storied caucuses.
"Iowa has a confusing situation in the sense that people report whoever wins that straw poll the night of the caucuses, but that's actually not binding," Paul said at a press conference before tonight's Lincoln Dinner. "It's the state convention, which is determined by people from the caucuses who go to the state convention."
He was referencing the 2012 situation in which Romney was initially declared the winner of the caucuses in 2012, until a recount showed Santorum had narrowly won the raw vote. But Paul's father, then-Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, actually won the most delegates at a subsequent state convention.
That essentially means the caucuses, for the past two GOP presidential primary cycles, has not correctly predicted the eventual Republican nominee. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee bested Arizona Sen. John McCain in the 2008 caucuses.