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Iowa back in the 2016 spotlight

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(CNN) — The 2016 Iowa caucuses may still be two and a half years away, but two possible Republican White House hopefuls head Friday to the state that traditionally votes first in the presidential primary and caucus calendar.

Sen. Rand Paul is making his second trip to the Hawkeye State this year. The Republican from Kentucky will speak to evangelicals gathering at the influential “Pastors and Pews” event, as well as talk with reporters at a news conference in Des Moines.

A press release from RandPAC, the senator’s political action committee, says that Paul will be in Iowa “to meet with various leaders in the Evangelical, African American and Latino communities.”

During an earlier trip to Iowa this year, as well as stops in the other early primary and caucus voting states of New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada, Paul has mingled with donors and supporters, reached out to grassroots activists, and helped raise money for the party in those states. It appears to be part of his strategy to build stronger bonds with establishment Republicans in the crucial early voting states, while at the same time staying close with the grassroots, tea party, and libertarian crowds, which helped put the ophthalmologist in the Senate in 2010.

Starting late last year, soon after the 2012 presidential election, Paul has been very open about the possibility of running for the White House. He told CNN last November that “I won’t deny I’m interested.”

And Paul, the son of former Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, who ran for president as a libertarian in 1988 and made bids in 2008 and 2012 for the GOP nomination, has said in numerous interviews that he expects he’ll decide next year on whether he’ll follow in his father’s footsteps.

The other possible presidential contender in Iowa Friday, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, is less public about any possible 2016 aspirations.

(Both men were on the same flight to Des Moines, as tweeted by ABC News’ Jonathan Karl.)

Cruz, the former solicitor general of Texas who was elected to the Senate last November with strong tea party and other grassroots conservative support, will also speak at “Pastors and Pews,” a closed-to-the-press meeting of about 800 pastors and their spouses in Des Moines that is put on by the American Renewal Project.

During his brief visit to the Hawkeye State, Cruz will also headline the Iowa GOP’s summer picnic, and he’ll attend some smaller, separate meet-and-greets with Republicans.

Cruz made his first pilgrimage to one of the crucial early voting states when he keynoted the South Carolina GOP Silver Elephant Celebration in May. Cruz, who has become an increasingly popular speaker among grassroots Republicans thanks to his blunt conservatism and willingness to take on the GOP establishment in Congress, heads back to Iowa in August to attend another social conservative gathering.

A visit next month to New Hampshire to headline a Republican Party fundraiser and a speech Labor Day weekend at a tea party related event in Florida, another early voting state, are also on his itinerary.

While Cruz’s travel plans give the appearance of a man with 2016 on his mind, the senator’s advisers say Cruz is fully focused on his work in Congress. Cruz press secretary Catherine Frazier adds that “we’ve been receiving an overwhelming amount of requests to speak. The senator is willing and excited go anywhere where people want to listen to his vision and message for restoring our nation’s economic growth.”

Cruz’s eligibility to run for president has been subject to debate. He was born in Canada to a Cuban father, but his mother was an American citizen. Those close to Cruz say that the senator is an American citizen by birth because his mother is an American-born citizen.

That the “Pastors and Pews” event is drawing both Paul and Cruz to Iowa is no surprise. Evangelicals and other social conservatives are an influential force when it comes to Iowa Republican politics, and a force in the caucuses.

The social conservative event Cruz is returning to Iowa on August 10 to attend, the Family Leader’s Family Summit, will also draw Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, another possible White House contender, as well as former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, two 2012 GOP presidential candidates who may make second runs for the GOP nomination.

Another potential Republican 2016 contender, House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, is also returning to Iowa later this year. CNN has confirmed that the 2012 GOP vice presidential nominee will headline Republican Gov. Terry Branstad’s birthday event and fundraiser on November 16.