WASHINGTON — In late October, Sen. Marco Rubio commanded a ballroom packed with hundreds of Iowans and delivered what was essentially his stump speech to the largest fundraising dinner in the Scott County GOP's history.
Four months later, Republican officials in the state are still talking about that speech. It was an early investment in a key early state whose residents pride themselves on needing (and getting) a lot of face time with candidates. He spent days on the trail with now-Sen. Joni Ernst. But in the months since the election, Rubio hasn't been to either of the big summits featuring many of the Republican contenders. In fact, he has only been to Iowa once — a stop in Des Moines on his book tour.
"It's surprising," said one Iowa-based strategist. "He was a huge presence on the Ernst campaign and I don't know yet if they have a committed person in Iowa, but I know it's not for lack of looking."
Rubio's aides are staying tight-lipped about their Iowa strategy and cautioned that personnel announcements were coming soon, likely after Rubio's announcement in Florida next week. Still, several other candidates have swept up staff with deep Iowa ties. Sen. Ted Cruz hired Bryan English as a senior adviser. In January, Scott Walker hired a top Ernst strategist, David Polyansky, who is also a Huckabee 2008 veteran. And then Jeb Bush snagged Dave Kochel, who also worked on the Ernst campaign, both of Mitt Romney's presidential campaigns, and who is expected to eventually run Bush's campaign.
"I'm not going to discuss our strategy in the state, other than to say that if Marco runs for president, Iowans will see a lot of him," said one Rubio aide.
The aide added that if Rubio does run (and all signs suggest that he will) he would "run to win in Iowa."
The Iowa caucuses are 10 months away, and Rubio has plenty of time to meet voters and officials in the state. (The last Des Moines Register/Bloomberg poll was Feb. 1, and put Rubio in ninth, but national polling over the last month has positioned Rubio as a top-tier candidate.) His lack of an official Iowa presence at this point, though, has still left some Iowa GOPers wondering how much he'll be able to catch up.
"Even Donald Trump and Carly Fiorina have hired people here in Iowa, and good people, too, so we're seeing the entire field has put people on the ground here except for Sen. Rubio," said Sam Clovis, a republican activist who placed second to Ernst in the primary (but says he now considers her a friend). "We would know, those of us in the Republican circuit here would know, if he hired someone."
"I haven't heard any pulse at all for Rubio as of yet," Clovis added. "Almost everybody else but not him."
Judy Davidson, the Scott County party chair who had Rubio come speak to their dinner in October, said she had not heard from the senator since then but expected that would change soon enough. Davidson said she was bowled over by the response Rubio received when he spoke at the dinner ("We sold out, which killed me," she said), but that he hadn't been back didn't surprise her.
"They'll all start hitting the ground in a big way," she said. "So I am sure Sen. Rubio will join that crowd once he announces."
And while Rubio's Iowa effort appears to be off to a slow start, a lot of goodwill remains from his work in the state last year. He spent long days stumping for Ernst and helped her elevate her campaign early on by endorsing her in the primary and then lending her some of his top staffers for her race. The sold-out speech at the Scott County Republican event really hasn't been forgotten.
"He had that crowd eating out of the palm of his hands. There were tears in people's eyes and you could have heard a pin drop in that room," said Jeff Kaufmann, the chairman of the Iowa GOP. "The fact that I'm still hearing about it four months later I think portends very well for him."
Kaufmann was more optimistic about why Rubio hadn't been seen in the state yet and said that Iowans had a lot of "expectation and enthusiasm" for whatever Rubio was going to eventually announce.
"I don't think it's a deficit for two reasons, I think he's really taken this time to make a decision and I think he was here multiple times before that. I think what he did in the past will have an impact and I believe people believe he was really trying to make a decision," Kaufmann said.
Kaufmann said that a lot of voters in Iowa paid attention to Rubio after his endorsement of Ernst, even if they didn't necessarily support her in the primary. And he is willing to give Rubio a pass, at least for now. There's an upcoming event in May for presidential candidates — Rubio is one of four or so potential contenders who has yet to RSVP.
"I haven't pushed it until after the announcement and then after that I'm going to push him really hard," he said. "I have every intention of talking to him within three days after his announcement."