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The Iowa caucuses — the first contest of the 2012 presidential nominating season — take place in three weeks. That means there's precious little time for candidates to make their case and close the deal with Hawkeye State Republicans.
But candidates were tough to find in Iowa on Tuesday. Only former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum — a big underdog in the race — was there. In fact, many Iowans note that this year candidates have spent fewer hours in the state than before recent presidential caucuses.
There are places across Iowa where you just know candidates are going to pass through to shake hands and make an impression, like the Baby Boomers restaurant near the state capitol in Des Moines. Owner Rodney Maxfield says the candidates are still dropping in, but not as often.
"I'm assuming that it's going to get bigger, but it's definitely slower," Maxfield says.
Seated at the counter finishing his coffee, Josh Seddon, 30, says he'll participate in the caucuses, but describes his involvement so far as "not hot and heavy yet."
"It may have something to do with the candidates usually are in and out of the city quite a bit more," he says. But he quickly adds there's still time to get up to speed on who's who.
Already A Familiar Face?
Two of the GOP's leading candidates are least likely to be found in Iowa this year: former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
Darrell Kearney, 70, a local Republican party official, remembers that Romney was in the state a lot in 2007 and 2008, and says Gingrich has been here a lot over the years.
"I first met Gingrich in '88 when he was campaigning for Jack Kemp, so a lot of people know him and know Romney," says Kearney, who says he has met every presidential candidate since Ronald Reagan in 1980.
Republican strategist John Stineman says one reason candidates are scarcer in Iowa this year is the need to raise money. The Gingrich campaign, for example, has huge debts to pay off even as it spends more.
"There's only so much money you raise in Iowa, and to be honest, it's not very much," Stineman says. "So you have to go somewhere to make sure that you're going to get the coffers full enough to buy the ads and fill the mailboxes the way you need to for your campaign."
More Debate Time, Less Face Time
Dennis Goldford, a political scientist at Drake University in Des Moines, says the unusually large number of televised debates also have changed dynamics.
"They've given all sorts of candidates the visibility and press coverage that they normally would get by being in Iowa with feet on the ground participating in the caucuses," he says. "We don't know yet whether this is the beginning of a long-term change in the significance of the Iowa caucuses."
At another Des Moines restaurant, Paul Levenworth, an independent who has registered Republican so he can go to the caucuses, says he recognizes that candidates also have to spend time in New Hampshire and South Carolina, which follow Iowa in voting.
"It's a national campaign, so they're involved someplace and they certainly have a presence in Iowa whether it is television, whether it's the multiple phone calls we get at dinnertime every night from various candidates, or polling people," he says.
Still, voter Desda Saunders says she hopes all of this isn't a sign that the Iowa caucuses are losing their clout.
"I think it's kind of sad because Iowa enjoys that, and likes to be a big player in the whole process of [nominating] candidates," Saunders says.
The candidates will be stepping things up in person in Iowa later this week, as there's a debate in Sioux City Thursday night. And even if it comes late, the days between Christmas and Jan. 3 are still likely to feel just like caucuses past.