The Republican Presidential Hopefuls Hit Iowa

WAUKEE, IOWA -- "Are you ready to begin the process of choosing Barack Obama's successor here in Iowa?" Ralph Reed asked the crowd gathered here at the Faith & Freedom Coalition's presidential forum on Monday night. The event, which drew about 2,000 mostly elderly voters, was the first semi-official Republican cattle call of the 2012 election cycle. Five hopefuls showed up: Tim Pawlenty, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Herman Cain, and Buddy Roemer. A rumor spread earlier in the day that Donald Trump might appear--his had plane landed in Des Moines. But it turned out only to be an aide. Which was too bad from a public-spectacle standpoint.

The Faith and Freedom Coalition is big on social issues, and the candidates knew to pander in that direction. For some, it wasn't easy. Between them, Gingrich and Roemer have four divorces, so they talked about their grandchildren. So did Herman Cain. Santorum, who has as almost many children (7) as the rest of the field combined (9), talked about his kids. Pawlenty, perhaps because he loves his wife, but probably to take a dig at Gingrich's serial divorces, had it noted in his introduction that he'd been married to the same woman for 22 years. It was that kind of night.

From a national politics standpoint, the tone of the event felt a bit off, for reasons that Rep. Steve King inadvertently illuminated. In his introductory remarks, the conservative culture warrior declared, "If we get the culture right, the economy will be right eventually." There may be people who actually believe that. But most of them were attending this event.

The prospective candidates each gave mercifully brief speeches. Gingrich did his best to come across as humble. "I'm a grandfather," he said, "and come at this with maybe a bit more wisdom than I had." He stuck to the safe terrain of criticizing "activist judges" and tried to score points by emphasizing the fanatic level of his conviction that they are perpetrating great evil on America: "We need a political change so deep, so profound, that nothing we have seen in our lifetime is of the level of depth we need to get this country back on the right track." That's how deep.

Pawlenty came across as a passable top-tier candidate, although his strategy for shaking his reputation as being dull was apparently to shout his speech. He, too, had it noted that he is enjoying a bountiful and happy marriage to his wife of many years (take that, Newt!). He also gave the obligatory shoutout to Ronald Reagan, quoted scripture, and invoked the Founding Fathers: "The Constitution was meant to protect people of faith from government, not to protect government from people of faith."

Cain and Roemer made for an entertaining undercard--neither has much hope of winning the nomination. Cain has a wonderful, resonant speaking voice, but seemed not to have anything particular to say with it: his speech meandered. But he drew an appreciative crowd afterward. Roemer, whose political skills were hyped to me by several colleagues, struck me as a bit of a disappointment. His style was understated and he seemed a bit scattered. Those vaunted skills must be rusty. But from the standpoint of policy (and chutzpah), his was the most interesting speech because he forthrightly called for the elimination of ethanol subsidies, which is hardly a proven strategy for winning votes in Iowa.

For my money, Rick Santorum won the evening in a rout, which surprised me. The trick at these sorts of events is to pander to the audience, but not in a way that's flagrant and embarrassing, like Mitt Romney does. Santorum seemed relaxed, genuine, and sunny, even when talking about unpleasant issues like partial-birth abortion. He noted almost offhandedly that he had been "attached at the hip" with groups like the event sponsor during his time in the Senate, which is true. Then he spoke about the many battles that he lost in the Senate, often ones that involved abortion and marriage, the kind of fights that were hopeless from a numbers standpoint, but that were nonetheless worth waging. As a senator, this had made his life difficult. "My kids used to think my first name was 'ultra,'" he said, in reference to the media's (not-unjustified) habit of referring to him as "the ultra-conservative Rick Santorum." Santorum used this as a badge of honor, which was both clever and effective. Where I was sitting the crowd was hushed and rapt.

Afterward, I sought out Santorum and asked about the status of his prospective presidential bid. He'd just fended off a series of charged and provocative questions from fringe conservative-journalist types trying to get him to say outlandish things about Muslims. He looked tired. I got the pat answer about how he's going to "keep putting one foot in front of the other, see how things go, and see how fundraising goes--that's a big issue." I gathered it wasn't going especially well. Santorum hadn't taken a shot at Newt on stage, but couldn't resist now. "I think Newt's found one way to do it," he said, with a hint of a grin. "We're going to do it a different way." Then he winced. "I forgot to hawk my website." He looked disappointed. Even so, he helped himself tonight.

Drop-down image credit: Reuters