By Thomas Beaumont
ALTOONA, Iowa (AP) - Democrats with presidential dreams are coming to Iowa with little fanfare, entourage or recognition.
They are undeterred by talk of a Hillary Rodham Clinton candidacy in 2016 or her plans to visit the leadoff caucus state next month to honor retiring Sen. Tom Harkin.
But former Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia, Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and a few other Democrats have nothing to lose if Clinton runs, and lots to gain if she doesn't.
"I'm here to listen to people and think about things," Webb told The Associated Press with a grin.
Webb's answer, matched with his schedule, has the ring of someone on a political fact-finding mission.
The former Navy secretary spoke Thursday to the Iowa Federation of Labor's annual conference, an important gathering of Democratic opinion leaders. He also campaigned for Rep. Dave Loebsack and Senate candidate Bruce Braley and dined in Des Moines with prominent Democrats, all the while guided by Iowa-based political operative Jessica Vandenberg.
It was Webb's first such foray. He used it to set himself apart from President Barack Obama, whose job approval nationally has been below 50 percent since last year.
The president's use of executive authority "has gone way too far away from the legislative branch," Webb told the 100 labor leaders at a conference center outside Des Moines. "It certainly is outside all precedent, and the Congress should have stepped in," he added later in the interview.
But Webb, a decorated former Marine whose serious tone hardly makes the pulse race, mixed in a little humor, a time-honored political icebreaker. "I'm the only person elected to the United States Senate with a union card, two Purple Hearts and three tattoos," he told the labor conference to chuckles and applause.
On the GOP side, some potential candidates are further along in Iowa, with paid staff on the ground.
Klobuchar's scheduled trip to Iowa on Saturday was to be her third since the 2012 election. She says she would support a Clinton candidacy. But if Clinton weren't in the race, Klobuchar would have proximity to Iowa on her side.
"Right now, I'm focused on this job and I think a lot of the work I'm doing in the Senate has national implications," she told The Des Moines Register while in Iowa last year.
Other Democrats who have visited Iowa include Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley and former Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent who is supported largely by Democrats, will be in Iowa when Clinton attends Harkin's annual fundraiser.
Making early visits before better-known prospects has its advantage, said former Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh. He spent 2006 cultivating Democratic support in Iowa, as did Mark Warner, then a former Virginia governor and now a U.S. senator. Both abandoned the idea of a presidential bid after seeing Obama emerging as likely the most promising alternative to Clinton in the 2008 race.
"I reached the conclusion that I could run, but I couldn't win," Bayh told the AP.
Others stay in, despite heavyweight rivals, to audition for top administration posts, as Vice President Joe Biden did, while others lay the groundwork for future campaigns, Bayh said.
Biden, the party's biggest potential 2016 contender not named Clinton, has not been to Iowa since headlining Harkin's event last year, but he has stayed in touch with Iowans he's befriended as a two-time candidate for president and groups who have come to Washington.
Some, however, strike it rich.
A little-known governor of Arkansas ahead of the 1992 presidential campaign, Bill Clinton made early inroads in Iowa and New Hampshire even though more prominent Democrats - New York's Mario Cuomo and Missouri's Richard Gephardt - were in the mix. Clinton had nothing to lose staying in the race, then steadily gained as the field narrowed.
"You might get some who run anyway," Bayh said. "They might catch lightning in a bottle."