By Gabriel Debenedetti
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - As Texas Senator Ted Cruz charmed Republican activists and religious leaders in Iowa last week, he insisted that he was there to promote his party's agenda and not to test conservative voters' enthusiasm for him as a potential candidate for president in 2016.
Even so, Cruz's venture to a state that holds a key early vote in the presidential nomination process was widely seen as a sign that the freshman senator, a favorite of the conservative Tea Party movement, hasn't ruled out a run for the White House and is aware that if he does run, he will need to build a political base well beyond Texas.
That is partly because of another Texan who could contend for the Republican nomination: Governor Rick Perry, a fundraising powerhouse in the state. Perry has announced that he will leave office next year and has left open the possibility that he might try to redeem himself from the debate gaffes that derailed his bid for the White House in 2012.
The potential for a Cruz-Perry showdown in 2016 already is causing some anxiety among Texas' Republican Party leaders, fundraisers and donors, many of whom like both men and are concerned about being pressured to support just one.
Similar scenarios are unfolding to lesser degrees in Wisconsin and Florida, states that also have two potential contenders for the party's presidential nomination - Governor Scott Walker and U.S. Representative Paul Ryan in Wisconsin, and former Governor Jeb Bush and U.S. Senator Marco Rubio in Florida.
In New York, Democrats have at least two potential White House contenders of their own - former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Governor Andrew Cuomo.
The unusual number of states with multiple potential candidates poses a particular challenge for party operatives looking for hints about who might emerge by early 2014 as leading contenders for the White House.
Strategists say it creates a dynamic that could shape the early stages of the 2016 campaign, and alter the notion that a candidate can't seriously contend for the presidency without overwhelming support in his or her home state.
For donors, particularly in Texas and Wisconsin, "the problem is, they hate being forced to choose. It's like being asked, ‘Which child do you love more?'" said Matt Mackowiak, a Republican strategist in Austin, Texas. "For a lot of (donors), what they are trying to do right now is resist committing."
No high-profile contender has jumped into the presidential race, even though the ongoing feud between two other Republicans - Kentucky Senator Rand Paul and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie - has made it seem as if they already are running. In states with more than one potential contender, there are signs of contrasting strategies in looking ahead to 2016.
In Texas, a Perry presidential campaign clearly would be rooted in that state, analysts say, while a Cruz campaign would be based there but likely would be more of a national effort aided by Tea Party followers and big-money conservatives.
Perry, 63, appeals to the state's political establishment, which he has led for 13 years as governor. He has traveled to Connecticut and other states in recent months, largely to tout Texas' job-creating economy and urge gun makers, pharmaceutical firms and other companies to relocate to his state.
Perry has made a point of fundraising on behalf of TexasOne Corp., a state-sponsored nonprofit group that gives companies a chance to help shape Texas' economic policies - if they pay $250,000 a year to become a "partner" with the group. TexasOne, created by the state economic development office, also gives the governor an easy way to keep in touch with big donors.
Cruz, 42, has gone to Iowa, South Carolina and other key states in the presidential nomination process, building a national profile as a rising star in the conservative movement.
For now, Perry and Cruz brush aside talk of a run for the White House. Republican leaders in Texas, however, are nervously watching for a collision between the two.
"If you have Governor Perry and Senator Cruz running, it's going to be an awful decision for some people, because among the conservative base both are extremely popular," Texas Republican Party Chairman Steve Munisteri said.
Joe Nixon, Perry's Houston-based campaign lawyer last year, notes that neither Perry nor Cruz has sought donations for a presidential campaign. If they do, he said, "it might be one of those situations where people might write big checks to both."
CONTRASTS IN WISCONSIN
In Wisconsin, a similar contrast in strategies could play out between Walker and Ryan, political observers say.
As Wisconsin's first-term governor, Walker, 45, has thrilled Tea Party conservatives and angered Democrats by seeking to diminish the power of public workers' unions.
Walker has a substantial fundraising network in Wisconsin and last year drew millions of dollars in donations from out-of-state conservatives to fight a union-led recall effort against him.
Up for reelection in 2014, Walker recently made appearances in Iowa and South Carolina - moves that many in the party view as a signal that he is considering a presidential campaign.
Unlike his friend Walker, Ryan, 43, has never won a statewide race in Wisconsin. When he was Mitt Romney's vice presidential running mate last year, the Republicans lost the state to Democratic President Barack Obama.
But thanks to last year's campaign, Ryan - who built his budget-cutting reputation as an insurgent, Tea Party-aligned policy wonk - has become a national figure among conservatives.
He has made a string of appearances with other Republican candidates for the U.S. House of Representatives, and 70 percent of the disclosed donations to Ryan in 2012 came from outside Wisconsin, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington research group.
So while Walker's base is firmly in Wisconsin, from a campaign fundraising perspective Ryan essentially would be a national candidate who happens to be from Wisconsin, said Washington-based Republican strategist Ford O'Connell.
If both were to run for president, "it would be a very difficult decision for many Wisconsin Republicans," said Scott Suder, the Republican majority leader in the State Assembly.
WAITING FOR BUSH AND CLINTON
Florida's potential candidates for 2016 are famously close.
Bush, 60, has been a supportive mentor to Rubio, 42, a rising star whose standing among some conservative Republicans has suffered lately because of Rubio's backing of a broad overhaul of the nation's immigration laws.
Many Republicans oppose the plan because it could open the door to U.S. citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants. The Pew Hispanic Center has estimated that more than three-quarters of the nation's 11 million undocumented immigrants are Hispanic; in recent elections Hispanics have tended to vote for Democrats.
Rubio has played down the possibility of a presidential campaign while Bush, whose father and brother were presidents, has indicated that he is at least considering a run. Republican operatives in Florida say that if Bush decided to run, the party's establishment almost certainly would back him.
"I would say 90 percent of the money that would be involved in Florida would, if there were a race between the two of them, go to Jeb," said Brian Ballard, Romney's finance co-chairman in Florida during the 2012 campaign. He said Bush is part of the state's "political DNA," having remained active in state politics since leaving the governor's office in 2007.
"If you really want Marco Rubio to run for president, you have to be rooting for Jeb Bush not to run," Ballard said.
Clinton's position in New York is similar to Bush's in Florida: If she runs, Cuomo - and most other potential Democrats nationwide, likely would step aside, analysts say.
Cuomo, 55, has said that his decision on whether to run for president would not be affected by Clinton, 65. But strategists say that a Clinton candidacy would leave Cuomo without much of a support base, because they would pursue many of the same donors.
Unofficial fundraising groups supporting Clinton's candidacy are already operating, most notably a group called Ready For Hillary. It reported raising $1 million in June, an indication that among Democrats, the fundraising picture for 2016 is already solidifying.
(Editing by David Lindsey and Jim Loney)