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GOP Presidential Race Revs Its Motors At Iowa Dinner


In some ways, the 2016 presidential campaign is starting more slowly than we've seen in recent cycles. There's just a handful of official candidates - six Republicans, two Democrats. But look for things to pick up quickly in the coming weeks, especially in Iowa, which holds its caucuses in just over eight months. That's where NPR's Don Gonyea is this weekend.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: If you're a reporter who covers politics or a citizen who's an avowed political junkie, the 2016 campaign may feel like it's gotten off to a sluggish start. Sure, there have been lots of events, but the roster of contenders hasn't really taken shape. And nobody seems eager to make a big move at this point. Here's how Iowa voter Dave Richter sees it.

DAVE RICHTER: There's no real frontrunner. There's no star.

GONYEA: Richter is 60 years old and a registered Republican. I caught up with him as he awaited the arrival of Jeb Bush at a town hall event in the Mississippi River town of Dubuque. He was here with his wife Tori, who jumps in on the conversation by noting that she's already annoyed by one aspect of the campaign - the dreaded automated phone calls.

D. RICHTER: Yeah, that's...

TORI RICHTER: The robo calling is annoying.

GONYEA: Who are you getting calls from?

T. RICHTER: We got them from - what's - Dr. - got to think of the name.

GONYEA: Ben Carson.

T. RICHTER: Yes. Jeb Bush. You know, those are the only two...

D. RICHTER: Rubio, Ted Cruz.

T. RICHTER: ...That I can even think of because I tend to hang up on them before I listen to them.

GONYEA: So that's what it can be like for voters in Iowa even before things heat up. Still, the Richter's did get out early on a Saturday to attend a campaign event. Last night in Des Moines, another sign that the pace of things may soon quicken, the Iowa Republican Party's annual Lincoln Dinner. Party Chairman Jeff Kaufmann stood on the stage at the downtown convention center and looked out at some 1,300 attendees.


JEFF KAUFMANN: You know what I see out there right now? I see grassroots. I see united. I see a joint effort coming.

GONYEA: Then came the candidates, each allotted just 10 minutes.


UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Please welcome Senator Rand Paul.

SENATOR RAND PAUL: Thank you. Thank you. I am on the rubber chicken circuit. I have been all over the place.

GONYEA: There were lots of references to life on the road as a candidate. Jeb Bush, who earned a thumbs down from many Iowa Republicans when he said this week he won't be participating in the nonbinding but highly publicized GOP Straw Poll in the state the summer, opened his remarks with this.


JEB BUSH: Thank you all very much. I am excited to be here because this is day 541 - there are only 541 days left before the end of the age of Obama and Hillary Clinton.


GONYEA: Bush was actually the big story of the campaign this week because of his changing and sometimes confusing answers about Iraq. He was asked if, knowing what we know now, he'd have done what his brother George W. did - launch the Iraq War. First he said yes; later he said no. Last night, Rand Paul weighed in.


PAUL: It's a valid question, not because we're just talking about history, but we're talking about the Middle East where history repeats itself.

GONYEA: Senator Paul argues the U.S. has been far too quick to use military force around the world. But Senator Lindsey Graham defended Bush in his speech.


SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM: When it comes to blaming people about Iraq, the person I blame is Barack Obama, not George W. Bush.

GONYEA: That President Obama's foreign policy has made the world less safe is one thing all of the speakers agreed on last night. But there are plenty of differences between these 2016 hopefuls. That'll become more evident as more officially enter the race and when they eventually take the stage to debate this summer. Don Gonyea, NPR News, Des Moines. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.