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2016 GOP race explodes with flurry of campaign activity

No more speculation and hypotheticals -- the 2016 presidential campaign has arrived.

No more speculation and hypotheticals -- the 2016 presidential campaign has arrived on the Republican side.  

The past week alone has featured an explosion of high-level campaign moves as Republican candidates gathered staff, kowtowed before donors and prepared to make direct pitches to voters for support.

In Des Moines, a long list of possible candidates, including New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson are gathering Saturday for the Iowa Freedom Summit. Citizens United and Rep. Steve King, who is best known for his strident opposition to immigration reform, organized the event.  Sarah Palin, who expressed vague interest in a 2016 run at a Friday event in Las Vegas, is also set to speak. Expect to get a good sense of candidates’ emerging stump speeches as they work to distinguish themselves in front of conservative activists ahead of Iowa's first-in-the-nation caucuses next year. 

RELATED: Steve King, once a GOP pariah, emerges as critical 2016 player

In another roundup of top prospects, Sens. Cruz of Texas, Marco Rubio of Florida and Rand Paul of Kentucky will participate in a live panel discussion on Sunday at a donor conference led by conservative billionaires Charles and David Koch in Palm Springs, California. 

The real action in Palm Springs and elsewhere is happening behind the scenes as candidates press flesh with party moneymen and try to line up support in what promises to be an extremely competitive primary field. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in particular are considered fierce competitors for the same deep pool of establishment financiers. The two emerging rivals met personally in Utah on Thursday to clear the air ahead of their possible campaigns.

Individual candidates are also working out their game plans and making moves with staff.

Rubio, who is debating whether to run for re-election next year or take a crack at the White House, has picked up a top fundraiser-in-waiting in Anna Rogers, the finance chair of Karl Rove’s big money group American Crossroads, according to NBC News. He’s planning a fundraising trip in California next week and trips to key primary and caucus states early next month. The moves puts him closer toward a run despite speculation that Bush’s entrance in the race might split his base of Florida supporters and make a campaign difficult.

Romney’s team reportedly huddled Friday  in Boston, the headquarters of his 2012 campaign, to discuss their next steps. One pressing issue may be corralling old donors. A report on Friday by the Center for Public Integrity found that many of Romney’s bundlers, who raised millions for the candidate in 2012, are still undecided on whether to stick with Mitt for another run. Meanwhile Bush is planning a 60-event fundraising tour, per The Wall Street Journal, with the goal of producing “shock and awe” numbers to scare potential opponents out of the race. 

RELATED: Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney hold private meeting

Santorum also met recently with Foster Friess, the wealthy conservative who almost single-handedly kept his campaign afloat in 2012 by funding an outside super PAC allied with his candidacy. In the years since the Supreme Court’s Citizen United decision, which opened PACs up to unlimited donations, the political environment has become such that all it takes is one friendly billionaire to justify a run. 

Not everyone exploring a campaign will necessarily do so, but the sheer number of high-profile Republicans aggressively prepping for 2016 this month suggests the primary is going to be crowded. When it comes to launching a presidential campaign, the train is fast leaving the station.