By Gabriel Debenedetti
IOWA CITY Iowa (Reuters) - Most Republicans running in tight U.S. Senate races in November's midterm elections can rely on campaign endorsements from a few national figures. But most Republicans are not Joni Ernst.
More importantly, most Republican Senate candidates are not running in Iowa, the influential swing state that kicks off the presidential nominating race. Potential 2016 contenders have flocked to Iowa for months, looking to exert as much influence - and gather as many favors - as possible.
So, more than six weeks before the election, Ernst has had quite a coronation. She has drawn support from Florida Senator Marco Rubio, Texas Senator Ted Cruz and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul. Not to mention former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, Texas Governor Rick Perry and 2012 presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
They have flooded Ernst with financial and political aid.
The story is similar in the other influential early voting state of New Hampshire, where Republican Senate candidate Scott Brown's list of supporters also includes Romney and Rubio. Paul and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie campaigned with him recently.
Ernst, Brown and their Republican colleagues are the latest beneficiaries of the traditional early trek to Iowa and New Hampshire by aspiring national leaders hoping to get a head start on the nomination battle.
But this year stands out because the Senate races in both states are surprisingly close and critical to Republican efforts to win a majority. More than a dozen 2016 Republican White House hopefuls are jockeying for position.
"We've had a lot of them that have helped us, and we appreciate that," Iowa's Republican Governor Terry Branstad said of the national figures as he campaigned in Iowa City with Ernst.
"But my advice is: don't focus on 2016, focus on 2014. Do all you can to help our Republican candidates, and when we do well and you play a good role in helping people, it's a good start," Branstad, heavily favored in his re-election race, told Reuters.
Democratic efforts to woo local power brokers have been more low-key as possible contenders wait to see if early favorite Hillary Clinton runs, although Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley has actively supported candidates in Iowa and New Hampshire and Ready For Hillary, an independent group supporting Clinton, has sprinkled both states with money and staffers.
Presidential contenders have used midterm elections to build influence in Iowa since at least 1986, when then-Arizona Governor Bruce Babbitt sent two employees to work for the state Democratic Party ahead of 1988's contest, said Jeff Link, a longtime Democratic strategist in Iowa.
Babbitt's bid failed, but his precedent endures.
'THE TRADITIONAL WAY'
"The formula has been: set up your political action committee, then help (local candidates) with resources and infrastructure," said Kevin Madden, a Washington-based Republican strategist who worked on Romney's campaigns in 2008 and 2012.
"If you have campaign volunteers from your PAC network, or if you have money to cut to candidates, that can help build the framework of a state-wide campaign, which can be part of a nationwide campaign."
Ernst has received $10,000 from Rubio's political action committee, which also funded Ernst television ads in May and June. Romney campaigned with Ernst in June, while Cruz and Perry appeared separately in August.
Perry's Iowa visits have included appearances for 15 county Republican committees and two county wings of Americans For Prosperity, a group backed by the libertarian billionaire Koch brothers.
Hampton, Iowa, radio station program director Shawn Dietz has gotten endorsements from both Perry and Paul in his bid for state Senate.
"It's always good to have that attention that comes along with somebody national," said Dietz, a supporter of Rand Paul's father, retired Texas Rep. Ron Paul, in 2012.
Because so many high-profile figures are still desperate to make an impact in Iowa and New Hampshire, local candidates get to be picky, instead of scrambling for support like Senate candidates in other states.
"If you're in a non-early (voting) state and you're in a statewide race, you're asking for help," said Matt Mackowiak, a Republican operative who has worked in Iowa. "When you're in one of those early states, these people are asking to come help you."
National support for Ernst's and Brown's opponents, Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, will likely intensify. Clinton's recent Iowa stop alongside Braley - her first visit since 2008 - was viewed as a sign of her interest in 2016.
Ready For Hillary has donated to many state party committees and had a presence at 84 county conventions in Iowa alone.
But despite the outside involvement, Ernst and Braley remain neck-and-neck.
"I appreciate the support," Ernst told Reuters amid the din of the Iowa University marching band and an excited crowd of supporters. "But (while) at the end of the day it's wonderful to have that type of support out here, I'm asking for Iowa votes."
(Editing by John Whitesides, Caren Bohan and Ken Wills)