An assortment of possible Republican presidential candidates were in Iowa Saturday, trying to appeal to conservative activists at a Des Moines forum sponsored by U.S. Rep. Steve King.
Jan Mickelson, a conservative talk radio host, succintly summed up what was in store for several hundred conservative activists gathered Saturday for a forum that saw a baker's dozen of Republican presidential contenders line up to seek favor. "Let the pandering begin," Mickelson said.
Pander they did. Over nearly nine hours, high-profile Republicans that included Sen. Ted Cruz, governors like Scott Walker of Wisconsin, Chris Christie of New Jersey and Rick Perry of Texas, and media-driven stars like Sarah Palin and Donald Trump took turns ridiculing President Obama, sounding alarms about the country's future and promising a sharply conservative change in direction.
The Iowa Freedom Summit served as unofficial kick-off to the year's worth of politicking that will lead up to the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses in January or early February of 2016. That contest has been both launching bad and burial ground for presidential contenders: in 2008, then Sen. Barack Obama pulled an upset win over Hillary Clinton and put himself on a trajectory to the White House.
"Do you believe the next president of the United States is going to be speaking to you from this stage today?" asked U.S. Congressman Steve King, who co-sponsored the event. As the crowd applauded in agreement, King said, "As do I."
King, who represents northwestern Iowa including about half the counties along the Minnesota border, is a high-profile conservative with a penchant for generating controversy. His harsh critiques of illegal immigrants, in particular, have drawn derision from critics; the forum was interrupted several times by protests from supporters of the so-called DREAM Act, which grants citizenship to the children of illegal immigrants if they make certain educational achievements.
Walker, recently re-elected despite a tumultous first term where he survived a recall attempt, was something of a breakout star at the forum. He came onstage without a jacket, his sleeves rolled up, and delivered an energetic speech that leaned heavily on his successful effort to strip collective bargaining rights from Wisconsin public workers.
"We weren't afraid to go big and go bold," Walker said. "Maybe that's why I won the race for governor three times in four years, in a state that voted for Democrats for president every four years ever since I was in high school."
Cruz, who got a rock star-like welcome, delivering a rousing, deeply religious speech. Christie, seen as perhaps too moderate for Iowa's conservative Republican base, nonetheless seemed to win over many with a thoughtful speech and a touching story about his late mother.
But the event was nearly as notable for those Republican contenders who didn't show up, namely former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the party's nominee in 2012. For their absence and their perceived roles as establishment candidates, both men earned some scorn from the stage.
"We lose when we nominate RINOs," said New Hampshire state Rep. William O'Brien, another hero to conservatives (RINO is a conservative slur, directed at moderate Republicans, that stands for "Republicans In Name Only").
While the Republican field is wide and active, the Democratic contest is shaping up more slowly. Prominent Iowa Democrats said numerous potential candidates are in a holding pattern until Clinton decides whether to make another go of it, as most expect she will. Her decision is expected by April.