By Andy Sullivan
CHARLOTTE, North Carolina (Reuters) - As Democrats rally for the final months of the presidential election, a handful of politicians are quietly testing the waters for a possible White House bid four years from now.
On the margins of the Democratic convention here, rising party stars like Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa have been meeting with the 60 delegates from Iowa, the state that traditionally holds the first nominating contest of each presidential campaign.
The message may not vary much from one speaker to the next, but the meetings give Iowa activists an initial look at politicians who may be turning up at county fairs and Fourth of July parades from Sioux City to Davenport over the coming four years.
"I like 'em all at the moment," said Chris Petersen, a hog farmer from Clear Lake.
In return, the prospective candidates get to press the flesh with activists like Peggy Whitworth of Cedar Rapids, who decided to back Obama months before he announced he was running for president.
"I don't think any decisions are being made, but if you decide to do this, it begins in Iowa," Whitworth said.
At their convention in Tampa last week, Republicans showcased a crop of forty-something officeholders like Florida Senator Marco Rubio and South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley who could be conservative standard bearers for years to come.
But Republicans had to temper their talk of 2016 for fear of suggesting that they don't expect Romney to win this year.
Democrats face no such constraints. No matter the outcome of the November 6 election, Obama won't be on the ballot four years from now.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden are the best known possible candidates at this point.
With Clinton traveling in Asia and Biden preparing for his prime-time speech on Thursday, politicians who have yet to build a national reputation have been showing up at the Iowa delegation's breakfasts.
RECHARGING THE PARTY FAITHFUL
Newark, New Jersey Mayor Cory Booker wowed many delegates with a speech that touched on his grandmother's links to Iowa and a brief history of Buxton, a coal-mining town in the Hawkeye State that had many African-American leaders.
"He kind of recharged us and energized us. We connected with that," said Devin Guillory, a delegate from Clinton, Iowa.
Villaraigosa also won praise for a speech that several delegates described as elegant, though he may have to work a bit harder to build his brand.
"I can't pronounce his name, but he's a very good speaker," said Jon Heitland, a workers' compensation judge from Iowa Falls.
Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Virginia Senator Mark Warner, Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer also are due to speak to the Iowa delegates this week.
Some possible candidates have a chance to follow up with high-profile speeches before thousands of party activists back in Iowa.
O'Malley will be a featured guest at Senator Tom Harkin's steak fry in two weeks. In October, Villaraigosa will speak at the party's annual Jefferson-Jackson dinner, the event where Obama made a big impression in 2007.
Iowa delegates say they're focused on the current election, but that doesn't mean they're oblivious to the groundwork being laid for the next one.
"There's various people in the Democratic Party we'll have our eyes on, but everybody's so focused on our president," said Lanore Guillory, a delegate from Clinton, Iowa. "We'll just kind of wait and see."
(Editing by Edward Tobin and Alden Bentley)
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