In many long years of political observation, I can’t recall so much early intrigue in a key presidential nominating state as we are seeing among Iowa Republicans right now. Last week I wrote about the deep hostility to Paulism that’s affecting Rand Paul’s standing in the First-in-the-Nation Caucus State, based not on his old man’s ideology but on the fractious behavior of the Paulites who took over the state GOP last year. This same factor is contributing to early enthusiasm in Iowa for a potential ’16 candidate that we all tend to forget about: Scott Walker.

Check out this report from The Iowa Republican‘s Craig Robinson about Walker’s appearance late last week at the Polk County (Des Moines) County GOP fundraiser:

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker made good use of his time in Des Monies on Thursday night. In the span of a couple hours, he raised money for his 2014 re-election campaign at a private roundtable fundraiser that was organized by Iowa Governor Terry Branstad, and then dipped his toes directly into Iowa’s presidential waters by speaking at a Polk County GOP fundraising dinner.

Some may think that speaking at a local GOP fundraising dinner is not that big of a deal, but in recent years, the Polk County GOP has surpassed the Republican Party of Iowa when it comes to pulling off high-profile, big dollar events. For instance, the Republican Party of Iowa’s recent sold out event with Senator Rand Paul had fewer attendees and likely raised far less money. The Polk County GOP sold over 800 tickets to Thursday’s dinner and raised over $100,000.

The favorable comparison of Walker’s local event with Paul’s on behalf of the much-resented Paulite-controlled state party is the key point here.

But there are additional straws in the wind. It’s clear Walker’s main sponsor in Iowa is fellow-governor Terry Branstad, very much an “Establishment Republican.” But look who else had warm words for Walker’s potential in the Caucuses:

“Gov. Walker has a lot going for him and he’d be a very appealing candidate in a state like Iowa for the caucuses,” says Bob Vander Plaats, an influential social conservative kingmaker in the state. “Not only is he right on a lot of issues, he’s been very bold and courageous on his leadership on a lot of those issues. And being a neighbor to Iowa doesn’t guarantee you success but it certainly doesn’t hurt.”

Yes, it’s FAMiLY LEADER BVP, who ran against Branstad in 2010 and maintained his “kingmaker” status by backing the last two Caucus winners.

When you actually look at Walker’s overall ideological profile, he’s sort of a boring version of Michele Bachmann. But he doesn’t have to run all the ideological traps a member of Congress has to deal with, which is becoming a real problem for presumed early national front-runner Marco Rubio, whose bad press among Iowa activists is discussed today by the Washington Enquirer‘s Byron York:

Over the weekend I emailed a number of Iowa conservatives to ask them a few general questions about the GOP field. I didn’t mention immigration or any other issue; I just wanted their thoughts. What I got back, as far as Rubio was concerned, was all about immigration, and nearly all negative.

“Over the last three months, Marco Rubio’s name and face and voice have been so attached to the comprehensive immigration bill that it has virtually killed any enthusiasm among Republicans in Iowa for a Rubio presidential candidacy,” said GOP State Central Committee member Jamie Johnson. “Most Republicans here now see Rubio as the amnesty candidate.”

Johnson, BTW, isn’t one of the state party’s Paulites; he was a big Santorum supporter in 2012.

It’s all incredibly byzantine and parochial, but that’s how Iowa Republicans roll. Scott Walker, of course, still has to face a tough re-election campaign, but the likely viciousness of that battle will probably endear him to Iowa activists even more, and there’s some buzz in Wisconsin that Walker could skip re-election and just move down to Iowa semi-full-time.

Yes, it’s crazy early to be talking about 2016, and a lot of other big wingtips have yet to drop (for one thing, Ted Cruz is the kind of guy who could hit the Iowa scene like a Moltov Cocktail). But the key thing to remember is that the nomination process is not some sort of national primary in which Beltway Pundits or even Karl Rove get a bunch of votes. So while you can take your time paying attention to this kind of stuff, eventually the strange dynamics of Iowa and New Hampshire are going to matter a lot.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.