In Iowa, little breathing room for GOP bottom-dwellers

Story highlights

  • Candidates like Bobby Jindal, Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee are discovering spending a ton of time in Iowa isn't leading to success in the polls
  • Jindal, who spent more hours in Iowa since the 2014 midterms than any other Republican running for president, dropped out last week

Harlan, Iowa (CNN)With 10 weeks to go until an Iowa king is crowned, the Republican race here is barreling toward a four-way jumble that has given no breathing room to Hawkeye State workhorses suffocated by a quartet of national phenomena.

The woes of lower-tier Iowa-minded candidates are deepening. Bobby Jindal, who spent more hours in Iowa since the 2014 midterms than any other Republican running for president, dropped out last week. The Louisiana governor was at 4% in a CNN/ORC poll earlier there this month, higher than his national numbers.
Jindal's move could be ominous for candidates like Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, who won the caucuses in the past two cycles with Pizza Ranch drop-ins and nose-to-the-grindstone schedules. Both barely register in any Iowa polls.
    "It's a talented field, so it's hard to break through," Santorum told CNN Friday after the Presidential Family Forum in Des Moines. "Here's the difference: They know me. They don't know a lot of these other guys."
    Republican hopefuls are about to lean into a final push that may be dominated by a pair of national debates, philosophical differences about America's role in fighting terrorism and a deluge of television advertisements financed by people well beyond Iowa.
    Republicans here increasingly say that only four presidential hopefuls -- the same foursome that have led national polls since mid-October -- have a realistic chance of winning the kickoff contest in the Republican race. Donald Trump and Ben Carson, with the appeal of an outsider and the infrastructure on the ground to turn out voters in February, are about to face a full-thronged effort to dethrone their pole position by a pair of surging senators who sit in their shadow, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio.
    Those four, who have spent relatively little time here, are attacking each other while the rest of the field watches from afar.
    "The field is narrowing, even if no one really drops," said Matt Schultz, a former Iowa secretary of state, after introducing Cruz here and is supporting him. He predicted it won't be a four-candidate race for long: "That will be pared down to three."
    Perhaps the final gasp for some of the Republicans who have essentially moved to Iowa came Friday night at the Presidential Family Forum, as they pleaded for the endorsement of a distinctly local figure, Bob Vander Plaats, whose Christian influence has plucked winners from the depths of the field.
    But rather than highlighting the fissures between the six Republicans seated around a Thanksgiving-decorated table in Des Moines, it only reaffirmed that the triple on the left side of the table, Cruz, Rubio and Carson, had the luxury of all but ignoring the three long-shots on their right. (Trump did not attend.)
    Santorum, Huckabee and Carly Fiorina had their moments sharing personal stories of redemption, but it was Cruz's electricity and Carson's solemnness that impressed voters.
    Cruz has spent much of the summer with a limited footprint in Iowa, with a very small paid staff that he has only begun to ramp up. And Rubio, despite his national buzz, has been criticized for his limited face time with Iowa voters, something his campaign looked to correct with an extensive five-day tour of the state that ends Tuesday.
    "We're all good guys," Rubio told one voter, who like more than a few here in Iowa, is torn between Rubio and Cruz. "You got a few more weeks to make up your mind. We're going to try and pull you over."
    Cruz, for his part, is confronting the greatest expectations yet for his campaign in Iowa, a state he has long sought to portray as not a must-win. But given the endorsement of one key Iowa powerbroker, Rep. Steve King, and one from Vander Plaats possible, Cruz's challenge might be to merely keep expectations in line.
    He is one of the few Republicans who have pledged to visit all 99 counties, and Iowans say they have noticed the increase in his Iowa mileage. Cruz began the day of the forum at a Sioux City town hall with King at 9:45 a.m., and by 10:45 p.m. Cruz was still holding court in an overflow reception room after the event, answering questions in an impromptu town hall well after other rivals had left the convention center.
    "That's a little bit different from the reception I get in Washington," Cruz said as the awaiting crowd turned to notice his emergence from the icy parking lot into the American Legion hall here.
    But Iowa Republicans retain a hopeful optimism that the state will only reward those who put in the legwork -- even if that hasn't yet been borne out by the polls so far.
    To voters like Jeannie Leiean, who watched Cruz here, the national stars shouldn't just expect to ride to victory on their larger-than-life personas. Leiean, who said she is split between Cruz and Rubio, expressed some worry that Cruz was the first candidate she had seen at all this cycle -- and not yet the Florida senator.
    "We watched the debates, but seeing someone in person changes your perspective a little bit," she said. "One on one, you can see their personality."
    That, for some voters, could eliminate candidates like Trump and Carson, who despite their solid lead in the state have actually spent fairly little time here. Carson avoided the state for the entire month of September, and Trump has only once done a day here with more than one event.
    Vander Plaats, who plans to endorse in early December, said he could see another candidate who works the state hard rising into the four-way fray. And he said he thought their few trips belied how sincerely each of those four national leaders needs a Hawkeye State win to boost them deep into the calendar.
    "That's why you see so many candidates putting their bets, so to speak, on Iowa. It's all in," he said after his event. "Cruz wants Iowa. Rubio wants Iowa. Obviously Carson and Trump -- all these guys want Iowa."
    Karen Campbell, a 52-year-old Jindal admirer, is one of those who is now suddenly uncommitted. And the hopefuls will need to work it to win her vote with personal attention -- the kind Jindal provided.
    "He came to my house a month ago for lunch," she recalled of the Louisiana governor. She is now leaning toward Cruz. "What I look at is, 'Where is their heart'?"