“Iowans understand our responsibility as first in the nation,” Tamara Scott, the Iowa state leader for Concerned Women for America, tells Right Turn. “That’s why when most Americans are at the beach or the pool, we’re sitting . . . listening to [presidential] candidates.” Indeed they are, perhaps earlier than many expected given that the 2014 elections are still three months away. “I don’t know if it’s the pleasure and excitement of [seeing] all these candidates or just wanting to turn the page,” she offered as explanations for why several contenders could gather 1,500 to 2,000 people at a time this past weekend, plus create excitement in round-table talks and on-on-one meetings.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R), center, talks with Dick Dale, left, and his wife, Margurite, of Algona, Iowa, on July 19. (Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press)

It is, however, a more cautious mood among conservatives than we’ve seen before. They have lost two presidential races and watched President Obama, in their eyes, claim to be a moderate and govern from the far left. “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice shame on me” seems an apt moniker for the GOP base. Scott says that experience makes voters more deliberate as they assess candidates. “It’s not the label. It’s how they live and how they will lead [that matters],” she says. “A label won’t carry them.”

The media have got one thing right about the 2016 race: Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) is doing extremely well. A connected Iowa Republican who has been through a number of Iowa caucuses e-mails, “Perry continues to improve and impress.” In a sign Perry understands how critical retail politics are in Iowa, he “sticks around longer than he’s scheduled, meeting with everyone,” says the Iowa Republican. Scott agrees. “Last time [in 2012] he had some issues in the debates,” she gently observes. “But people are looking at Texas and what they have achieved. When he speaks on immigration he now has credibility.” So far his work is paying off and he is getting some of the most favorable coverage of any 2016 contender.

Candidates who think aspirants simply have to show the conservative flag on abortion and marriage may be in for a rude awakening. “There is so much hitting us,” Scott says. “You cannot ignore foreign policy. You cannot ignore what is happening to our own borders. And so many Americans are still out of work.”

Concerned Women for America recently adopted Israel as one of its core issues, a reflection of how important that is to conservative activists. She volunteers that for Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), “There is always the question of where he stands on support for Israel.” (She nevertheless credits him for reaching out to at least meet people beyond the core support he and his father have maintained.)

Rand Paul was in the state last week, but didn’t hang around for the weekend Family Leader confab of Christian conservative groups citing a  family commitment. That caused quite a flap when pictures of him partying in the Hampton’s surfaced. The Rand Paul camp, yet again on damage control, insisted he really did have a family commitment. Iowan leaders were miffed, the Des Moines Register reports:

An Iowa evangelical Christian leader stood on stage and told the 1,200 conservatives in the audience and the dozens of reporters that U.S. Sen. Rand Paul had told him he couldn’t be at the event Saturday because of a “family commitment.”

Then the New York Post’s “Page Six” published the news that Paul was in the Hamptons on Saturday with Alec Baldwin. Paul was “among the intellectual elite” at a fundraiser for a library in East Hampton that Baldwin co-sponsored, the column says.

His longtime aide says he stopped by the party at his book publisher’s home, but that didn’t seem quite right either:

Kate Hartson of Hachette Book Group publishes Paul and his father and will soon release a book by his wife, Bloomberg News reported. “[Paul’s editor] has a home in Hampton Bays and spent the weekend with the Pauls, including a boat tour and fishing in Montauk,” Bloomberg reported.

Bob Vander Plaats, the president of the Family Leader, an organization that pushes for Christian conservative principles in government, told the Register that family obligations are a legitimate excuse.

“From my perspective, there are always choices to be made of where do you want to be and what message do you want to send,” Vander Plaats said. “If you want to be at a fundraiser in the Hamptons with the rich and famous, you probably ought to tell people you want to be at a fundraiser in the Hamptons with the rich and famous.”

Whatever the validity of the family excuse, it is best when selling oneself as an authentic conservative not to party with liberal elites in the Hamptons. As Scott put it, how a candidates lives his life is important in deciding who is authentically conservative.

The Iowa Republican asked for his off-the-cuff assessment, citing the Hamptons event as another bad news story for the Paul camp, was blunt. “He had nice events and good crowds [during the previous week], but his messaging was off,” he says. “He needs to figure out what he believes and stick to it. If there is one thing Iowans can sniff out, it is indecisiveness, insincerity or opportunism. He will need to stick to positions really fast if he hopes to do well here.” He, too, offers a caution about snap judgments: “We are not to the marathon portion yet, we are still in training, and he stubbed his toe on his first step. That smarts. He’ll remember. The training will make him stronger once he puts on the number and begins the trek to 2016.”

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) remains a crowd favorite and has never been accused of partying in the Hamptons or anywhere else populated by liberal elites. Recalling one of his appearances, Scott tells me that following an applause line and ovation, “They had to wait and wait for the crowd to settle back down.” Cruz will have his hands full competing for the most conservative voters with many candidates who are appealing to the same block of caucus voters.

What struck me in speaking to these and other Republicans in early primary and caucus states is how sober they and skeptical they are about even their favorites. “They say, ‘Abolish the IRS on day one,’ and we all cheer,” says Scott. “But I worry about day two. You’re going to need someone to collect the revenue.” Disappointment and defeat have, it seems, bred caution.

Republican voters and activists seem in no rush to find their favorites. Less visible candidates like Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (“vibrant” is how one Iowan describes him) and 2008 Iowa winner Mike Huckabee (who seems more serious about a run than the mainstream media believe he is) still draw praise. Even former senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania still has fans, although the Iowa GOP e-mailer remarks, “He’s going against a much stronger field this time” than in 2012.

The message for 2016 aspirants who want to compete in Iowa could not be clearer:  Come frequently. Don’t expect to get by on one-liners. Have a full and compelling agenda. Be crystal clear about what you stand for and what you want to do. And, for goodness sakes, don’t party in the Hamptons or slight foreign policy.