's decision not to run for president a "momentous" development,
predicted one of the most wide-open races in the history of the state's leadoff presidential caucuses, and urged candidates to step up their game soon.
Roughly three months before an early test of support, the Ames Straw Poll, the Republican governor said Monday that it's "not too late" for candidates to visit, predicting a "deluge" of activity in the near future.
"With hard work and retail politics, going to all 99 counties, meeting with people and answering their questions, this is a state where you can effectively launch a campaign," he told reporters.
Branstad used his weekly news conference in part to dispute the notion that Republican caucus-goers were far more conservative than primary voters in other early-nominating states, which could restrict the field and downgrade the importance of the result.
He pointed out that en route to his 2010 gubernatorial win, he defeated a primary opponent seen as more conservative -- and who was endorsed by Huckabee.
"The truth is, Iowa is a full-spectrum state," Branstad said. "We're wide open for all the candidates, and there’s an opportunity for the candidates to come and test the waters and see what kind of support they can generate."
Branstad was careful to list all candidates, from front-runners such as
to dark horses such as Rep. Michele Bachmann and
, as people who can have success.
Huckabee won the 2008 Iowa caucuses with 34% of the vote. Branstad said he envisions an even larger turnout in 2012, which could dilute the influence of caucus-goers for whom social issues are the No. 1 concern. A candidate that "focuses on cleaning up the financial mess that we have in
" would fare well, he predicted.
, who just announced his candidacy last week, is starting a 17-city tour of Iowa on Monday in Dubuque. Romney, Bachmann, Cain and Buddy Roemer all have events there in the coming weeks.
, who announced Monday that he will not run, was set to headline the state's Lincoln Day fundraising dinner in June.
The Ames Straw Poll is Aug. 13, and the caucuses are tentatively scheduled for Feb. 6.