ALTOONA, Iowa — Soft laughter rippled through the audience in an Iowa church meeting room when a woman punctuated her question to the keynote speaker, Bernie Sanders, with, “when you’re president.”
The reaction was a gentle acknowledgment that the Vermont senator, whose self-described socialist positions appeal to the hardest-core liberals, is a long shot for the Oval Office.
Yet while Democrats and Republicans are waiting for Hillary Rodham Clinton, Jeb Bush and other major prospects to formally kick off the 2016 race in the state with the first presidential caucuses, other lesser known or more unlikely aspirants are already active in Iowa, letting everyone know they’re available.
They’re following a long-established ritual, based on the notion that even far-fetched dreams can come true in a place where friendly people will come out to hear candidates and the media is ever alert for political tremors.
Along with Sanders, former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb and Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley among Democrats, and neurosurgeon Ben Carson, a Republican, are among the non-short-listers making contacts in the state, giving speeches and road-testing their messages.
Most don’t actually say they’re running. They’re just saying hello.
“I don’t know if it’s an advantage as much as it is laying down a marker, starting to bend the arc of the conversation,” said Sue Dvorsky, former Iowa Democratic Party Chairwoman.
And this being campaign-steeped Iowa, most seem to draw an audience.
On a two-day mid-December trip, Sanders, who is among the Senate’s most liberal members, made a series of stops in which he touted expanding government regulation of banking, universal government-funded health care and a $15-per-hour minimum wage. Sanders is one of only two senators who don’t identify as Democrat or Republican, though he caucuses and votes with Senate Democrats.
Sanders, hunched over a hotel ballroom podium with his tussled shock of white hair, declared that it’s time to break up the nation’s big banks.
“If Teddy Roosevelt were alive today, he would say, and we should say, if these guys are too big to fail, they are too big to exist,” Sanders said.
Sanders’ populist pitch bears some resemblance to that of Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, the rising star of the Democratic left. But she has said she won’t run for president, leaving room for Sanders to hope.
Ron Rosenblatt, a financial services company owner, cheered Sanders along with about 150 invited Democrats in the Altoona hotel ballroom. “I like his ability to generate enthusiasm,” he said, but at 73, “he’s at an age that would make it difficult.”
O’Malley, known for defending gay marriage and repealing the death penalty, visited Iowa four times last year and contributed more than $45,000 to Iowa candidates and party organizations, which made him friends in convenient places. Governors often make good presidential candidates, and O’Malley, 51, would be one of the few in the Democratic field, fitting somewhere to Clinton’s left on the political spectrum.
Webb, a former secretary of the Navy, visited in September before announcing his plans to explore a candidacy in November. He would slot to Clinton’s right.
Clinton visited Iowa twice in 2014 to campaign for Iowa Democrats, but has sent few public signals about her plans, even though most expect her to run.
Although national polls 13 months before the Iowa caucuses reflect mostly name familiarity, about 60 percent of likely Democratic primary voters say they would vote for Clinton. Sanders, O’Malley and Webb combine for less than 10 percent.
Long shot Republicans have also been busy in Iowa, along with the better known names such as New Jersey’s Chris Christie and 2012 Iowa caucuses winner Rick Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal has stepped up his Iowa travel, as has former Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
Newcomer Carson, 63, a retired Johns Hopkins neurosurgeon who was raised in inner city Detroit, has impressed crowds of curious Republicans on his two trips. Carson, who is African American, ignited curiosity among conservatives after he criticized political correctness, the federal debt and the health care overhaul during the 2013 National Prayer Breakfast, with President Barack Obama in attendance.
While Carson isn’t well known, other little candidates wound up eventually getting attention here in 2008, such as businessman Herman Cain, before eventually falling.
Providing hope to all longshots are Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor, who won the 2008 Republican caucuses, and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who came from nowhere in 2004 to challenge eventual Democratic nominee John Kerry.
But for every Huckabee, said former GOP chairman Matt Strawn, “There is a Tommy Thompson, Tom Tancredo or Chris Dodd,” referring to Iowa competitors who never broke through.
Physician Christi Taylor of Waukee, who heard one of Carson’s talks, said she was “blown away” by his remarks about personal responsibility.
Now she’s part of an effort to draft Carson to run. “As someone who likes to evaluate facts, I want to pick the right person, not who has the biggest name in lights,” Taylor said.
THOMAS BEAUMONT, Associated Press