AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Texas doesn't open the voting in presidential campaigns like Iowa and New Hampshire do, but the 2016 Republican race already feels well underway in America's largest conservative state.
Much earlier than usual, potential candidates, operatives and donors are maneuvering for advantage here. The urgency comes from Texas' moving its election from the end of the primary calendar toward the beginning. Which, for Republicans, changes everything.
Already, would-be presidential hopeful and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul has recruited the state's Republican Party chairman to handle communication strategies. Former Gov. Rick Perry is enlisting powerful Texas donors to prove he's serious about 2016, notwithstanding his flame-out three years ago. New Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush is stepping forward as a more prominent conservative voice as his father Jeb readies a run, and Sen. Ted Cruz is building a broader fundraising apparatus.
Texas' plan to hold its 2016 primary on March 1 means that only the traditional two early voting states, along with South Carolina and Nevada, would predate it, though some other states may eventually move their primaries up too. In 2012, Texas' primary came in late May, when the GOP race was already settled.
Traditionally, opening the campaign with small states has allowed the candidates to concentrate on connecting with highly motivated groups of voters rather than wooing the masses, and gradually building momentum. Adding an early behemoth like Texas makes a difference. More than 150 delegates to the GOP nominating convention are at stake in one place, dozens more than Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada combined. And Texas's 270,000 square miles requires more campaigning by television across 20 cash-draining media markets.
Thus, no longer would Texas be primarily a political ATM, where national GOP candidates come to stockpile campaign cash they can spend elsewhere. And Texas donors may have to decide sooner where to place their money.
"Maybe a lot of donors will play the field and put money on everybody," Dave Carney, a top political adviser to Perry's 2012 presidential campaign. "If you're really for one of them, though, you're going to want to get involved now since they're all going to need resources."
Having so many Texans and former Texans in the race is helping stoke the campaign atmosphere.
Perry flexed his fundraising muscle this month by announcing the backing of nearly top 90 donors. At least some of those on the list, however, say they see it more as a salute to Perry's gubernatorial accomplishments than an endorsement of his future campaign.
"That wouldn't be out of the question, that something would come up and I would support somebody else," said Red McCombs, the billionaire one-time owner of the NBA's San Antonio Spurs.
Tea party darling Cruz has proven to be a powerhouse fundraiser among activist conservatives nationwide. But Rick Tyler, a spokesman for Cruz's Jobs Growth and Freedom political action committee, said the senator won't overlook his home state's mainstream donors.
"Texas is a very large state. I have every confidence that Senator Cruz is going to compete," said Tyler, former spokesman for 2012 presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich.
Paul, the son of longtime Texas Rep. Ron Paul, will benefit from the connections of state Republican Party Chairman Steve Munisteri, a Perry backer in 2012 who announced he's stepping down next month to join team Paul.
Non-Texan candidates are jockeying for position here, too. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has signed up Dallas-based Ray Washburne, former finance chairman for the Republican National Committee, for his likely 2016 campaign.
Though Texas' convention delegates would be awarded proportionately, the early race could be cut-throat enough to trim the GOP field sooner than usual. Also-rans might not have much money left to fight on.
"Texas is an expensive state in which to campaign compared to the four early states," said Bill Crocker a former Republican National Committeeman from Texas. "That in itself is a very good test."
George P. Bush, who just finished running a statewide campaign, says his father, the former Florida governor who was born in oil town Midland, can appeal to Texans because of his potential to unify disparate GOP factions nationwide. Jeb Bush also has Dallas-based Allison McIntosh, who was Mitt Romney's 2012 Texas finance director, backing him.
"I think everybody who's disenchanted with Perry and his stumbles last time, and anybody who's more moderate and wants a candidate that can get elected instead of just nominated, like Ted Cruz, would be natural to go to Jeb," said Lionel Sosa, a San Antonio consultant who served as a Hispanic media expert for George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush.