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Story highlights

Hillary Clinton campaigned in Iowa this week, stumping for Democrat Bruce Braley

Activists think there's a possibility there won't be a viable alternative to Clinton for Democrats

That's a sharp distance from the Republican 2016 field, which seems wide open

Democratic hopefuls besides Clinton and Joe Biden have little name recognition

Des Moines, Iowa CNN —  

Imagine if Iowa held a caucus and nobody but Hillary Clinton showed up.

Democrats of all stripes, including Clinton allies, have predicted for months that the former Secretary of State – who was campaigning for midterm candidates in Iowa on Wednesday – will face some kind challenge in the race for the Democratic nomination if she decides to run. The prospect of a Clinton campaign seems more likely with each passing day.

But with the presidential race set to lurch into gear after next week’s midterm elections and no clear alternative to Clinton emerging, there are questions about whether she will be the sole candidate on the ballot. That would mark a dramatic shift from the rollicking caucus fights in previous campaigns, including Clinton’s battle with Barack Obama and John Edwards in 2008.

“There is a distinct possibility that there will be no serious alternative,” said Kurt Meyer, a plugged-in Democratic activist from Mitchell County, Iowa. “She may in essence have the field to herself, with one or two fringe protest candidates and no serious candidates opposing her.”

The prospect of an uncontested race is a little bewildering to some Democrats here, where competitive caucuses are ingrained in the culture.

“It could be a process with just one person,” said Bonnie Campbell, a longtime Clinton loyalist in Des Moines. “None of us can imagine that, because it hasn’t really happened before.”

For their part, the GOP isn’t worrying about a boring race. A platoon of Republicans — Chris Christie, Rand Paul, Rick Perry, Ted Cruz and others — have paraded through Iowa for the last two years, almost shamelessly transparent about their national intentions.

Among the cast of Democratic potentials, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley is the most active in Iowa, helping candidates up and down the ballot with campaign stops, paid staffers and financial assistance. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders is also visible. Both men have said they are seriously considering running regardless of what Clinton does, though it’s hard to imagine Sanders, a 73-year-old self-described socialist, mounting much more than a protest candidacy.

Meanwhile, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a progressive darling with grassroots appeal, whipped up a frenzy in the college town of Iowa City earlier this month at a campaign event for Senate candidate Bruce Braley in Iowa City. Former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb is weighing a run and Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick hasn’t quite ruled it out. Vice President Joe Biden, of course, is nurturing his long-standing relationships in the state.

And Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar was warmly received after a headline speech at the state Democratic Party’s Jefferson-Jackson Dinner last weekend. But she also typified the reluctance of Democrats to step forward until Clinton’s decision is clear.

“I am excited about the possibility of Hillary Clinton running,” Klobuchar said in an interview. “Democratic women senators have signed onto a letter asking her to run. I am one of them. I have put that in writing.”

All of the Democrats, with the possible exception of Biden, are not widely-known to most voters and have room to grow their support in Iowa if they run. The state has rewarded insurgent candidacies in the past, and Clinton is a well-defined politician whose centrist politics and cautious instincts could make leave vulnerable to a challenge from a fresher-faced candidate with stronger progressive impulses.

“For Hillary, it’s about meeting the expectations, because she can’t exceed them,” said state Rep. Pat Murphy, who is the Democratic nominee in Iowa’s First Congressional District. “The thing about Iowa is they will give everybody a look, so you can’t rule anybody out at this point.”

But it’s also real possibility that none of the other choices run — they have said as much publicly, with Warren particularly forceful in her denials — potentially leaving Clinton in the driver’s seat with no one riding shotgun.

Democrats here fear that a non-competitive one-woman show would sap the caucuses of grassroots energy and the potential for party-building, even with the history-making potential of her candidacy.

“If you look at the vigor that a caucus or primary brings to a party long-term, you have to hope that happens every once in an awhile,” Meyer said. “If it hadn’t happened two cycles in a row, in 2004 and 2008, then our party would be weaker than it is today.”

Dave Price, a political reporter and anchor for WHO-TV in Des Moines, said a non-competitive Democratic caucus would offer Republicans another presidential cycle in the Iowa limelight, “bashing Democrats non-stop.”

He said Iowa’s quadrennial caucus-industrial-complex would much prefer a two feisty battles, as it did during the busy winter of 2007 and 2008, rather than just one.

“Restaurants, hotels, everyone here gets used to it,” said Price, the author of “Caucus Chaos,” a chronicle of the 2012 Iowa contest. “It becomes its own spectator sport. You see people going all over town the week before the caucuses trying to see famous people, politicians, journalists, operatives, whoever.”

Though past campaigns are never predictive, even those preparing for a Clinton challenge struggle to remember a previous caucus dynamic like this one: A singular, dominant frontrunner — who still needs to make inroads with an electorate that never quite warmed to her in 2008 — and a cast of smaller figures who may or may not run.

“I don’t recall anything like this,” said Campbell, the Clinton supporter.

There was the 1992 caucus campaign, when Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, the hometown liberal, sought the Democratic nomination, allowing his opponents to forfeit the state and focus their energies on New Hampshire and elsewhere.

Another close analogy: the 2000 race, when the frontrunner, Vice President Al Gore, fought off a challenge on the left from Bill Bradley. Like Clinton, Gore was the cautious heir apparent. Bradley had the field to himself, after other potential candidates like Dick Gephardt and Paul Wellstone took a pass.

But unlike the Democrats who might challenge Clinton for the 2016 nomination, Bradley was not gun shy. After aggressively courting Iowa Democrats for months, he launched an exploratory committee in December of 1998, just weeks after the midterm elections, and immediately set about raising money and framing himself as the liberal alternative to Gore, focusing on education and poverty. Gore, though, ultimately defeated Bradley in Iowa, 63-35, on his way to the nomination.

To mount anything more than a gadfly candidacy against Clinton in today’s drawn-out, media-saturated nominating process will require a boatload of cash. Clinton and Barack Obama both raised over $100 million before the January 2008 caucuses, and that was almost seven years ago — before the Citizens United ruling made the political system even more awash in money.

Looking at the field of potential Clinton rivals, only Warren seems to have a natural base, the potential to raise serious money and a significant grassroots fundraising reach. A handful of big, progressive donors could help prop her up.

“We have this mythology that you can go to Iowa and New Hampshire and knock a few doors and ultimate you too can be a serious presidential candidate,” Meyer said. “Maybe Eugene McCarthy could do that. I think that the schedule and political life has gotten to the point today where you aren’t a serious candidate unless you go through the hoops of raising money and creating an organization. I think O’Malley probably comes the closest to it, but I don’t see who else.”

O’Malley has done more than any Democrat, including Clinton, to help elect Iowa Democrats this year — and he has traveled far and wide to do the same in other states. Though polling is of little consequence at this early stage, he remains stuck around one or two percent in hypothetical 2016 polls that match him up against Clinton, Biden, Warren and others.

Still, O’Malley’s Iowa antennae is so heightened that during the Big 10 match-up between the University of Maryland and the University of Iowa earlier this month, he wandered over to a Hawkeye tailgate and chatted up the revelers who had made the long trip from Iowa to Maryland.

“All the Iowa Hawkeye fans were quite impressed that here was the governor at this tailgate, and so was I,” said George Appleby, a Des Moines attorney and longtime Democratic activist. “Of course, we didn’t talk about any of the future. But implicitly, people don’t spend time with Iowans at a football game without a reason.”

But O’Malley is still wrestling with the decision to mount a bid and — despite the conventional wisdom about his intentions — could very well sit the race out.

What’s left, beyond a protest candidacy on the left mounted by Sanders or someone else?

A long list of ambitious Democrats eager to make a name for themselves in Iowa, but unwilling to take the plunge against Clinton.

Klobuchar’s speech last weekend was a folksy and populist-tinged speech in which she declared that, “Corporations aren’t people! People are people!” It was warmly-received by Democrats in the crowd who said they admired her family’s immigrant history.

After the speech, she happily ticked through the similarities between her state and Iowa.

“Iowans are our neighbors,” she said in an interview. “We have a lot of friends here back and forth between Minnesota and Iowa. our states are pretty similar. We are both agriculture states. The farm bill and and the renewable fuel standard are really important. So it’s important to me to have allies in Iowa like Tom Harkin has been, to get things done for the midwest.”

The message was obvious: She would play well here in Iowa. But she is not stepping into the arena so long as there’s a Clinton in the other corner.