DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - By this time four years ago, at least a dozen Democratic presidential hopefuls eager to make their case against Donald Trump had either visited Iowa or announced plans to soon visit the leadoff voting state ahead of the 2020 election.
Iowa's campaign landscape is markedly different this year, with a Republican field seemingly frozen by Trump's early announcement of a 2024 campaign. So far, only former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson has visited this year, and U.S. Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina is making plans to stop by in the next few weeks.
Even Trump, the only declared candidate in the 2024 race right now, has been absent from Iowa, choosing instead to kickstart his campaign last weekend in New Hampshire and South Carolina, two other early voting states.
With Iowa's first-in-the-nation GOP caucuses just a year off, the field of would-be White House candidates has largely been content to steer clear of bone-chilling Iowa - and, perhaps more importantly, avoid being the first candidate to announce a bid against the former president.
"No one wants to be on a limb by themselves against Trump," said Alan Ostergren, a Republican lawyer in Des Moines who is involved in GOP politics. "They'll all break at some point. But no one wants to go first."
For now, the quiet in Iowa gives other contenders weighing campaigns - among them former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, former Vice President Mike Pence and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, all of whom campaigned in Iowa last year for GOP candidates - time to talk to potential donors, promote their new books and summon the mettle to take on Trump.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a leading GOP presidential prospect coming off a blowout reelection victory, is not expected to make any 2024 moves until the spring, after the Florida Legislature adjourns and he completes a national book tour.
As a warning to other potential competitors, Trump and his team have been lashing out at would-be rivals. The former president has dubbed DeSantis "Ron DeSanctimonious" and said that a DeSantis challenge for the 2024 GOP nomination would be "a great act of disloyalty."
Trump's universal name recognition gives him space to stay away from Iowa for now, GOP operatives say, as his team charts a strategy that's expected to be more organized than his freewheeling 2016 campaign, which resulted in a second-place finish in the state's caucuses.
Although he remains deeply popular within a core of the Republican Party, Trump is facing a number of investigations that could complicate his third bid for the White House. Among them are a criminal investigation over top-secret documents found at his Florida estate, a probe in Washington into his efforts to undo the results of the 2020 presidential election, an investigation in Georgia into his efforts to remain in the presidency after losing reelection, and more probes in New York.
"He's not looked at as someone who should automatically get the nomination. He's no longer in office, and two years have gone by," said Steve Scheffler, Iowa's Republican National committeeman, who has pledged to remain publicly neutral. "Even though the base loves him and his policies, he may have to do more of what others have to do. I definitely think he's more vulnerable."
So far, Trump is the lone 2024 Republican with a paid presence in Iowa. Alex Latcham, the former regional political director for the Iowa Republican Party, now works for Trump's national team but still lives in Iowa. He is helping recruit an Iowa campaign director for Trump.
Unlike four years ago, around the time then-California Sen. Kamala Harris, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and then-South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, among others, were visiting Iowa, Democrats this year are standing to the side with the expectation that President Joe Biden will seek a second term. In any case, the Democratic National Committee is expected to strip Iowa of its leadoff voting status for the 2024 presidential nominating calendar, though Republicans plan to keep Iowa as its first-voting state.
Despite the relative quiet in Iowa so far this year, potential Republican candidates are still finding ways to make inroads with GOP activists in the state without setting foot there.
At the GOP legislative breakfast on Jan. 9, legislators and party officials flipped through a printed program that included full-page ads from Trump, Pompeo and Scott.
That's in addition to the tens of thousands of dollars that they and others, including Haley and Pence, contributed to Iowa Republican candidates from their political fundraising organizations for their 2022 midterm election campaigns.
Without setting foot in Iowa, DeSantis, too, worked to sow goodwill last year with Republican Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds by inviting her to meet in Florida.
Several would-be presidential candidates are expected to attend an annual spring fundraiser for the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition, a Christian conservative group, on April 22.
Hutchinson, the only 2024 GOP candidate to visit Iowa this year, made a low-profile visit to Iowa early this month, holding private meetings and speaking to a GOP state legislative breakfast. Scott is scheduled to speak at the Polk County GOP annual fundraising dinner on Feb. 22.
Gloria Mazza, chair of the Polk County Republican Party, said it's only a matter of time before the behind-the-scenes maneuvering by potential GOP Trump rivals spills out into the open.
"It's going to pop, but it's hard to tell when. It's like a game of chess," Mazza said. "Who is going to make the first move on him?"