By the time readers see this post, I will be well on my way to Des Moines to cover the Iowa Freedom Summit, an unofficial kickoff to the 2016 Republican presidential primary in the first-caucus state. Our parent division of Salem, Townhall, is a sponsor, and we will have a ringside seat to the event and opportunities to engage the main speakers.  The Hill takes notice of the event today, especially with contenders like Scott Walker, Ted Cruz, Rick Perry, and Chris Christie making the trek to the Midwest to position themselves for the upcoming race:

The starting gun for the GOP presidential race is about to sound.

More than a half-dozen likely candidates are gathering in Des Moines on Saturday to woo conservative activists and hone campaign messages just over a year away from Iowa’s Feb. 1, 2016 caucuses.

The Iowa Freedom Summit, organized by controversial Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) and Citizens United, is drawing many of those hoping to become the right’s standard-bearer.

“The King event is significant. It’s the kickoff for the cycle for Republicans,” said Craig Robinson, a former political director of the Iowa Republican Party. “It’s basically a year out and it’s going to be the first real time where Iowans are going to gather, look at these candidates side by side and really start deciding who they like.”

Speakers include Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, businesswoman Carly Fiorina and neurosurgeon Ben Carson.

Scott Walker and Ted Cruz finished nearly tied among Hot Air readers for top place in the Republican primary in our survey this week, and both will be in attendance. Cruz will go to California immediately afterward to participate in a closed, Senate-only round table sponsored by the Kochs with Rand Paul and Marco Rubio, both of whom are skipping the Iowa event. This will give Hot Air readers their first chance to see them together in a presidential-contest context.

Like it or not, Iowa is a proving ground for both parties in presidential elections. Rep. Steve King and Citizens United have decided to take advantage of that and the calendar to get the 2016 GOP cycle off to a start oriented toward conservatism. Politico calls King “King for a Day” for his part in staging this event, and Democrats are taking aim at the participants using King as a target:

Outside the event in Des Moines, Democrats will do their best to tether the 2016 hopefuls to King and his divisive views on immigration. At least 10 candidates who are openly considering a bid for the GOP nomination — from Chris Christie and Ted Cruz to Scott Walker and Mike Huckabee — are descending on Des Moines for a daylong conference put on by the congressman and Citizens United.

Across the street, Democratic National Committee chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz is planning a press conference to call on Republicans to condemn King’s past statements on immigration. King has compared undocumented immigrants to dogs and said many have developed “cantaloupe”-sized calves as drug mules.

American Bridge 21st Century, the liberal group that monitors all public utterances of the 2016 candidates, will swarm the event with trackers. Three years ago, a videographer for the group captured King on video saying that screening immigrants allowed into the United States is like the process of breeding dogs.

“The 2016 hopefuls tripping over themselves to kiss his ring this weekend had best remember that the tea party base aren’t the only people watching—and that voters will judge them by the company they keep,” said American Bridge communications director Ben Ray.

The demonstration will be fun to watch, but more or less forgotten in a week. King will enjoy his position as the leading conservative in the state, but Governor Terry Branstad and Joni Ernst may have more influence than King will in the long run. Branstad has won five statewide elections for governor and will undoubtedly be seen as the key to unlocking the populist sentiment in Iowa. Ernst just delivered a surprisingly strong performance in replacing progressive Tom Harkin in the US Senate with a compelling message of up-from-her-bootstraps conservative populism. Both of them will speak at the Freedom Summit, and look for Republican hopefuls to echo Ernst and Branstad more than King on Saturday.

That may be why Chris Christie decided to attend the Freedom Summit as well. Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush both took a pass on the Iowa event, but Christie plans to check the conservo-populist box rather than avoid the potential resistance to his New Jersey-calculated policy choices, as Eddie Scarry points out:

Huckabee, Santorum, and Cruz, among others, are the usual suspects of social conservative get-togethers. But organizers were surprised — happily so — when Christie accepted the invitation. He’s not a conservative darling, to say the least, but he had a successful visit to Iowa with Gov. Terry Branstad last summer and has built a good relationship with King. Now, showing up means a lot.

“I believe Christie earns a ton of respect for being here,” says Chuck Laudner, an influential GOP activist who is close to King and supported Santorum in 2012. “The one thing the base of the party wants is someone who isn’t afraid of the debate.”

“He is a man courageous enough to believe in his own conservatism that he is going to come and speak directly to conservatives in Iowa,” says David Bossie, president of Citizens United. “And so I tip my hat to him for doing that.”

Bloomberg’s John McCormick calls Christie “the Odd Man In“:

The first is the jockeying among the crowded field of social conservatives eying the White House, with lots of mentions of God and liberty expected. The second is Chris Christie.

The New Jersey governor is the oddest fit at a conservative confab in the state that hosts the nation’s first presidential nomination balloting. Most of the other speakers at the “Iowa Freedom Summit,” the largest gathering of its kind held so far in the 2016 election cycle, come from the party’s social conservative wing. Christie’s potential rivals for the Republican establishment vote, such as former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and 2012 nominee Mitt Romney, are taking a pass. …

Christie’s appearance marks the first time he’s directly faced Iowa conservatives since he angered them with an October 2013 decision to end a legal effort to stop gay marriages in New Jersey. He’s also been criticized for some of his judicial appointments and for famously praising President Barack Obama for his handling Hurricane Sandy recovery efforts, one week before the 2012 presidential election.

“I give him a lot of credit for showing up,” said Steve Scheffler, a prominent social conservative who represents Iowa on the Republican National Committee. “Just one speech isn’t going to win them over, but it’s a first step to opening the door.”

The Christie narrative will be interesting to follow tomorrow. Still, Scarry writes, the man to watch will be Scott Walker:

Besides Christie, the candidate who gains the most by showing up is Scott Walker. It’s hard to overstate how hopeful many conservatives are about the Wisconsin governor. They greatly admire his taking on the public sector unions, plus his victories in three elections in a blue state. What they don’t know is whether he would actually be a good presidential candidate. “People know of his successes and the battles he’s been in, but they don’t know him,” says Bossie. They’ll get a look on Saturday.

Indeed they will — as will the rest of the field. Stay tuned here for coverage of the Iowa Freedom Summit as it unfolds.