President Barack Obama was ostensibly returning to the site of the first-in-the-nation caucuses to promote his higher education agenda. But during his short stop here, the undercurrent of the state's full-swing campaign season was unavoidable -- even as Obama himself said he couldn't keep track of all the candidates.
Asked during a town hall which presidential candidate was selling the best plan for making college more affordable, Obama demurred, claiming he wasn't yet ready to wade into sticky presidential politics. But he said he wouldn't say silent on the race forever.
"I can't tell you who to vote for, at least just not right now," he said. "Later I will."
Without naming any of the Republicans vying for the GOP nomination, Obama made clear he disagreed with many of their plans to fund higher education, saying the resources behind their proposals weren't sufficient.
And while he said he wasn't endorsing a candidate, he did chasten Republicans who he said were fueling an "anti-immigrant sentiment" in the political discourse.
Such rhetoric "is contrary to who we are," he said. "Unless you are a Native American, your family came from someplace else."
Obama wasn't the only high-profile Democrat in Iowa on Monday: Hillary Clinton, his former secretary of state, was 125 miles away in Cedar Falls.
They didn't cross paths, and even when questioned by a student who identified herself as an intern on Clinton's campaign, Obama didn't take the opportunity to praise her policy positions or record.
He also avoided weighing in on a proposal by Clinton's main rival, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, to make all public college tuition free.
His reluctance to step into the Democratic nominating contest can be explained by the undecided Vice President Joe Biden, who hasn't yet said whether he's running for president. Obama may endorse a candidate in the Democratic primary, the White House has said.
In his town hall Monday, Obama at times waxed nostalgic about the state that helped launch his improbable bid for the 2008 Democratic nomination, saying as he landed at the Des Moines airport the number of hotel points gleaned from long-term stays at a nearby Hampton Inn could qualify him for a least a few free nights.
In recent days, Obama has lambasted Republicans running for their party's nomination on topics like the economy and climate change, saying they'd take the country in the wrong direction if elected to the White House.
He's eager to remain relevant in the current political conversation, even as the race to replace him consumes more and more of the spotlight. And while he wasn't stumping for any particular candidate in Des Moines, his message on making college more affordable fit squarely within the Democratic messaging that candidates like Sanders and Clinton have been extolling.
"A society's values are reflected in where we put out time, our effort and our money. It's not sufficient for us to just say we care about education," he said, arguing that federal resources were needed to increase graduation rates and improve the quality of teaching.
The White House claims the decision to travel to Iowa wasn't made with political motivations; instead, they say the Department of Education put a pin on the state while planning the back-to-school bus tour the Education Secretary Arne Duncan embarks upon yearly.
But there are plenty of places Obama could have traveled to to underscore his administration's efforts in reducing student debt. On Monday, he announced that students applying for federal financial aid will be able to submit the required form -- the FAFSA -- in October, rather than later in January. He also said his administration had worked to simplify the form so it only takes twenty minutes to complete.
Obama's trip Monday won't be the only time this week the White House lands in a hub of presidential politics.
Biden plans to travel to Southern California on Wednesday to promote the administration's climate change agenda -- just as the Republican presidential candidates convene up the road for their second debate, hosted by CNN, at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley.
Like Obama, Biden hasn't been shy in blasting Republicans for doing little to curb carbon emissions.