DES MOINES, Iowa — It's been six months since voters handed Barack Obama the White House, and in the minds of a lot of Iowa activists that means only one thing: It's time to start the campaign again.
Yes, 2 1/2 years before Iowans gather for their first-in-the-nation precinct caucuses, early presidential campaigning has begun.
"We had a brief pause for two or three months when people went somewhere warm, and then it starts again," said Richard Schwarm, a Lake Mills lawyer and former state Republican Party chairman. "Most of the old war horses hear the bell and start responding again."
Potential Republican candidates who have visited the state include Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who won the GOP caucuses in 2008. More politicians have trips planned, starting with Nevada Sen. John Ensign on Monday, followed by Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and another appearance by Huckabee.
Several other high-profile Republicans thought to be considering presidential runs, including Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, haven't visited Iowa since the election.
Of course, politicians typically say their stops in Iowa aren't related to any presidential ambitions.
Ensign, for example, will speak as part of a conservative lecture series designed to define the Republican Party heading into next year's congressional elections. Huckabee will be the draw at a fundraiser for Bob Vander Plaats, a likely candidate for governor.
Phil Roeder, chief spokesman for the Iowa Democratic Party during the 1988 election cycle, said there's a long tradition of politicians traveling to Iowa to help others.
"It's the smoke screen," Roeder said. "Every candidate has to keep the expectations in check and at the same time it's a great way to make friends in Iowa. If you're here to help others and not just help yourself, it gives you a good list to go back to when it's your turn."
Or as Eric Woolson, a GOP strategist who headed Huckabee's successful Iowa campaign, put it, "That's the nature of Iowa and the political schedule."
Campaigning for the caucuses begins earlier with each presidential election cycle, but interest among Republicans could be especially strong this time because of last year's example. That's when an underdog first-term senator from Illinois patiently built a huge network of supporters in Iowa, then was propelled by a surprising caucus victory toward the Democratic nomination and ultimately the White House.
"We only have to look at somebody named President Barack Obama to realize that if you do well in Iowa a lot of other pieces fall into place," said Republican strategist Bob Haus. "They take their role very seriously, so candidates take Iowa very seriously."
It doesn't always work that way.
In last year's caucuses, Huckabee emerged with a big triumph. But he never could shake his underdog status and finally quit when it became clear that Arizona Sen. John McCain would gain the Republican nomination.
The coming presidential campaign cycle almost certainly will be a Republican show because it's unlikely any Democrat will challenge Obama's run for a second term. Obama has visited Iowa once since becoming president and has maintained much of his campaign infrastructure in the state.
In his trip Monday, Ensign plans to focus on western Iowa, where Republicans dominate. Ensign, a veterinarian, will tour Trans Ova Genetics, an animal reproduction and cloning company in Sioux Center, and will make a perennial campaign stop, the Wells Blue Bunny Ice Cream Parlor in Le Mars. That evening, he'll give his speech in Sioux City.
"I think he's a rising star in the conservative movement and I can't wait to introduce him to Iowa," said Tim Albrecht, an organizer for the American Future Fund, an Iowa-based conservative advocacy group.
Albrecht, a former staffer for Romney during his presidential run, said Iowa is the perfect place for potential candidates to hone their message. Romney visited Iowa repeatedly before declaring his candidacy, then held events in the state almost weekly in the months leading to the caucuses.
"You can't find a more fertile soil in America to begin growing the new conservative movement," Albrecht said.
If it's obvious why candidates can't resist heading to the heartland, what about Iowans? Don't they ever tire of the attention?
"I think people genuinely think it's fun, it's interesting, it's exciting,'" said Roeder, now a spokesman for Democratic Gov. Chet Culver. "People take it pretty darn seriously."
Lexi Wornson, a Des Moines business owner, agreed.
"A lot of Iowans feel they can not only play a role, but they expect to play a role," she said.
For some, Iowa's place in American politics means a livelihood for those who run and staff campaigns, as well as businesses that cater to campaign gatherings.
"It puts food on the table," said Democratic activist Brad Anderson. "The reality is, it's been half a year since the election, they've had six or seven months to recover and I think people on the Republican side are ready to start the game again."
Schwarm, the former state GOP chairman, said the state benefits by the never-ending campaigning.
"The activists are interested in going out to talk to them and it builds energy and it builds fundraising," he said. "It's good for the economy."
Even if they wanted to delay campaigning until, say, a year before the caucuses, Drake University political science professor Dennis Goldford said Iowans wouldn't have much luck.
"Whether or not Iowans get tired of it, the fact remains that Iowa is still first in the nation until one or both parties determine otherwise," said Goldford. "Politicians certainly have to fight on the terrain they confront. That terrain starts in Iowa."