DES MOINES, Iowa — 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 before Iowa's Feb. 1, 2016, caucuses.

The Iowa Freedom Summit, organized by controversial Rep. Steve KingSteven (Steve) Arnold KingGOP lawmaker on Kavanaugh: What man wouldn't face such an allegation? Warren calls out GOP congressman for 'white supremacist propaganda,' encourages donations to his opponent GOP lawmaker accuses black students of supporting 'George Wallace's segregation' MORE (R-Iowa) and Citizens United, is drawing many of those hoping to become the right's standard-bearer.

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“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 CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzViral video shows O’Rourke air-drumming to the Who’s ‘Baba O’Riley’ after Cruz debate Five takeaways from Cruz, O'Rourke's fiery first debate NY Times, McCabe give Trump perfect cover to fire Rosenstein, Sessions MORE, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, former Texas Gov. Rick PerryJames (Rick) Richard PerryPartisan politics at independent agency draws bipartisan rebuke Overnight Energy: House panel approves park funding, offshore drilling bills | Green group putting M into races | Perry applauds Russia boosting oil production Perry welcomes efforts by Russia, OPEC to boost oil production MORE, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, businesswoman Carly Fiorina and neurosurgeon Ben Carson. 

The gathering could be crucial for many of the candidates who are hoping to unify enough of the state’s Evangelical Christian, Tea Party and libertarian activists, as they seek to be this cycle’s insurgent favorite. The caucuses helped launch Huckabee in 2008 and Santorum in 2012 as the conservative alternative. 

“This is a really important event. You only get one chance to make a first impression,” said conservative activist Sam Clovis, who was the Iowa GOP’s 2014 nominee for state treasurer.

Perry, Huckabee and Santorum might have the most on the line. The Hawkeye State is likely a must-win for all three, and they will have to convince activists who’ve already seen them in action that they have something new to offer. All three have already been working the state, with Perry and Santorum spending the most time in Iowa of any prospective candidate over the past year.

Walker also has a lot to gain — he’s spent much less time in the state than several others because he had to focus on his reelection this past year.

While nearly every movement conservative will be in attendance, most of the establishment candidates other than Christie are staying away — possibly because of King’s reputation. 

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and 2012 presidential nominee Mitt Romney — newly flirting with another bid — aren’t attending, citing scheduling conflicts. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and Kentucky Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulA Senator Gary Johnson could be good not just for Libertarians, but for the Senate too Conservatives left frustrated as Congress passes big spending bills Senate approves 4B spending bill MORE, who have conservative appeal, aren't attending either. 

Their absence will allow them distance from King, a fiery critic of illegal immigration who has been especially vocal in recent weeks attacking President Obama’s executive actions to end deportations for many illegal immigrants.

King stirred new controversy earlier this week by tweeting that first lady Michelle Obama shouldn’t host a “deportable” as a State of the Union guest, referring to a student who was allowed to stay in the U.S. as part of Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

Democrats are already looking to tie Republicans to King's controversies. The Democratic National Committee sent out an email asking whether the 2016 hopefuls agree with King and are comparing it to Romney’s 2012 “self deport” comment, while the pro-immigration group America’s Voice ran ads in The Des Moines Register.

King’s comments have also frustrated some Republicans. Rubio, while refusing to criticize King directly, said on Wednesday that his party must be careful with its rhetoric.

“We’re talking about human beings with hopes and dreams and families,” said Rubio, who has come under fire from some conservatives for his past support of comprehensive immigration reform. 

Beyond King's cattle call, there will be plenty of other high-profile events to attend in the coming months. Businessman Bruce Rastetter has an agriculture-focused bipartisan event scheduled for March. Republican National Committeeman Steve Scheffler is planning an April event for his Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition. Sen. Joni Ernst’s (R-Iowa) first “Roast and Ride” fundraiser is scheduled for early June and will likely draw a number of top contenders. And the infamous GOP straw poll is scheduled for August, coinciding with the popular Iowa State Fair. 

Still, Saturday's event represents an important opportunity to make a critical first impression on many of the top activists candidates must win over.

“Someone that can present a bold vision for this country and can convince us they have the wherewithal to lead this nation, that person has an incredible advantage with the base of the Republican Party,” said Clovis, who will introduce King onstage. 

Some candidates with prior Iowa experience are making sure to schedule time to mix with activists and party kingmakers, an opportunity some of the newer faces haven't jumped at.

Perry has already planned two public events — a Sunday night speech at an Indianola Pizza Ranch and a Monday breakfast meeting with the Republican Jewish Coalition in Des Moines — and is also lining up private meetings with state legislators. Huckabee has events related to his book tour on Sunday. 

Many of the first-time candidates won’t be sticking around that long though. Walker has no other events planned in the state — he and Cruz will rush off to California on Sunday to woo a group backed by billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, likely a worthwhile time investment. Rubio and Paul will also attend that event, participating in an ABC News forum that evening with Cruz. 

“If a candidate is only coming out here to deliver this speech then go home, they're doing it wrong and won't be taken seriously as a caucus player," cautioned Iowa GOP strategist Tim Albrecht.

"The smart candidates who are coming here will use this as an opportunity to start making contacts and meeting people. And if candidates don't do that, they're not going to be onstage a year from now when Iowa hosts its own debate next January."