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Heat is on: GOP, Democrats storm into Iowa to get 2016 race started

AMES, Iowa -- Roughly 29 months remain before voters in this crucial state make their opinions known about the next round of presidential wannabes. No candidate has declared an intention to run. There is not even a soap box for political speeches at this year's State Fair, a rarity in these parts. And the actual date of Iowa's caucuses is far from being determined.

But make no mistake: the 2016 campaign is well under way in the state that has played a major role in the battle for the White House for the past four decades.  

Events held by both parties highlighted that reality this weekend, with Democrats gathering to push for a woman president and social conservatives hosting a forum with a series of possible presidential candidates.

"Is this Hillary Clinton's first campaign event in Iowa?" O. Kay Henderson, the news director of Radio Iowa, asked on Friday while moderating a "Madam President" town hall event in downtown Des Moines. 

Justin Hayworth / AP

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum speaks during the Family Leadership Summit in Ames, Iowa on Saturday, Aug. 10, 2013.

“It’s great to be back in Iowa,” former presidential candidate Rick Santorum, who won the 2012 GOP caucuses in Iowa, told the Family Leadership Summit on Saturday.

Clinton, of course, hasn't appeared in Iowa since she lost the 2008 Democratic caucus to then-Sen. Barack Obama, nor has she said whether she'll make another run. But EMILY's List -- an influential Democratic group that works to elect women who support abortion rights -- wanted to make sure Democrats had a presence in Iowa this weekend. 

That's partly because on Saturday, conservative Christians gathered at Iowa State University -- the site of the 2011 Iowa GOP Straw Poll -- to hear from Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, business mogul Donald Trump, and Santorum.

“I have a lot of faith still in the people of Iowa in 2016 and beyond to use their good judgment and do what no other state has the opportunity to do, which is to know the candidates,” Santorum said. “God bless each and every one of you for being here today and for your passion,” Cruz proclaimed.

Only Santorum is already engaged in what looks like formal campaigning in Iowa. His speech in Ames capped a three-day tour of the state that began on the conservative Western edge and included a stop at the famed Iowa State Fair. He's even traveling in the same pickup truck that took him to all of Iowa's 99 counties during the last election.

"We went to the Blue Bunny ice cream parlor and the Pizza Ranch for lunch," he said, naming two iconic Iowa campaign destinations.

But even if other Republicans aren't openly campaigning, they're still coming by regularly. The Family Leadership event is Cruz's second visit to Iowa in as many months, and he's set to give the keynote speech at the Iowa GOP's Ronald Reagan Commemorative Dinner in Des Moines this fall.

Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., the former Republican vice presidential candidate, will headline Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad’s birthday bash in November. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., has also made a series of visits to the state this summer. And Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal flew back and forth from the National Governors Association meeting in Milwaukee to attend a party with a key Republican donor earlier this month.

High-profile Democrats with presidential ambitions, on the other hand, haven’t been scheduling visits to Iowa the way Republicans have. Why? Everyone is still waiting to see if Clinton will decide to run again.

Or, as Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., put it on Friday, the event was preparation for what “I hope will be that moment in 2017 when we all get to say ‘Madam President’ to Hillary Rodham Clinton.”

McCaskill endorsed Obama over Clinton during the 2008 race. And hanging over the EMILY’s List event were memories of her failed bid to win the caucuses here – the beginning of the end of her campaign. Iowa has never elected a woman to federal office or to the state’s governorship, a distinction it shares with only one other state, Mississippi.

Still, attendees insisted that it will be different in 2016.

“It’s a different time. It’s a different time,” said 24-year-old Abby Finkenauer, who’s running for state representative in Dubuque.

Iowa’s influence in Democratic contests is dramatically different for Democrats than for Republicans. The winner of the Democratic Iowa caucuses has gone on to win the nomination in the last five elections. In 2012 and 2008, conservative Republican caucus winners Santorum and Mike Huckabee lost their nominations to Mitt Romney and John McCain, respectively.

Attendees at the conservative forum were particularly excited to see Cruz – his flight was delayed and his speech moved to later in the day; a half dozen people said in interviews that they decided to stay later to make sure not to miss his speech.

His biggest applause line?

“There is no more important regulatory reform that we can do than to repeal every single word of Obamacare,” Cruz said to a prolonged standing ovation. “And that reaction right there, shows how we win that fight.”