WASHINGTON, Iowa — Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush boasts blue-chip donors, some of the best election campaign advisers and, of course, a famous political name. But when it comes to first-to-vote Iowa, he was practically starting from scratch Wednesday, making his first trip to the leadoff caucus state as a declared candidate.
"It's great to be back in Iowa, and for the first time I can say, I'd like to have your vote," the former Florida governor told about 75 Iowans seated at a lush, green backyard gathering Wednesday in the small town of Washington. "I'd like you to attend the caucuses. I'd like you to be part of our team."
It was a sort-of starting gun for Bush, who has just three employees in Iowa and has visited the state three times total this year. That's far less time and fewer resources than most of his rivals for the GOP nomination have invested in Iowa so far.
"He has some making up to do," said former state Rep. Renee Schulte, a Bush supporter.
Asked this week if Bush was spending enough time in Iowa, Republican Gov. Terry Branstad — a cheerleader for Iowa's outsized political influence — spoke about someone else.
"I would certainly compliment Gov. (Rick) Perry," Branstad said, referring to the former Texas governor. "I think he's been here the most. And I think he's building a good organization." Perry has visited Iowa more than a dozen times in the past year.
Bush's aides say he can make the best use of the seven months until the caucuses by focusing more on cities such as swing-voting Cedar Rapids than on the sparsely populated and more evangelical northwest.
"Gov. Bush is looking forward to campaigning all over Iowa in the lead-up to the caucuses," said senior Bush adviser David Kochel, who is leading the early-state strategy. "He'll go anywhere and work for every vote. He wants to earn Iowa's support, in the caucuses as well as the general election."
It's a break with the traditional caucus campaign. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, for example, visited each of Iowa's 99 counties as part of an intense — and ultimately successful — strategy to win the state in 2012.
It's the same approach Perry, who entered the 2012 campaign later and stumbled during debates, is now undertaking to win the state outright. But with a deep-pocketed super PAC supporting him deep into the primary calendar, Bush appears less reliant on having to win Iowa outright.
The recent cancellation of the Iowa straw poll may benefit Bush, who had planned to skip it. The straw poll forced out some poor performers early in past campaigns; without it there may be no event to winnow the large GOP pack before the caucuses. That, in turn, could mean that a finish in the top tier — rather than an outright win — has more meaning than in the past.
To be sure, Bush is hardly ignoring the state.
Kochel, a Des Moines Republican now working out of Bush's headquarters in Miami, is a veteran Iowa organizer and former adviser to Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's presidential campaigns. Bush's Iowa campaign director is Annie Kelly, who successfully ran one of the nation's most competitive 2012 congressional campaigns in Iowa.
What's more, the Bush campaign put out a list of 20 elected officials and GOP activists who are endorsing him. And he planned to talk with many more GOP activists Wednesday, in private meetings, phone calls and at an agricultural round table before headlining a town hall-style meeting east of Des Moines.
Former Iowa House Speaker Brent Siegrist, a Republican from GOP-heavy western Iowa, said to do well in the caucuses will require Bush to keep showing up.
"I think he could still do fairly well here, so he's going to have to be here," said Siegrist, who has not chosen a candidate. He said it won't do for Bush to come to Iowa "and finish ninth."
At the end of an impromptu press conference, Bush was asked how he was going to fare in the caucuses. As he walked away, Bush smiled and said, "I'm going to do great."