Last Saturday, at a Victorian theater in Des Moines, Iowa, at least eight likely Republican candidates for president met to talk to conservative activists.
The event highlighted the party’s challenge: to find a candidate who can win the loyalty of the grassroots base without moving too far to the right and jeopardizing the GOP’s chances of victory in the general election.
Theoretically, it could be a good place for New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.
If he didn’t have so many troubles at home.
Those include investigations into purposely causing a multi-day traffic jam in the town of a mayor he didn’t like, misuse of Hurricane Sandy relief aid, and improper use of bondholders’ funds by the Port Authority.
Party strategists and candidates remember well the lessons of Mitt Romney’s failed 2012 campaign, when he was trapped by his efforts to establish conservative bona fides, at one point calling himself “severely conservative.”
The Iowa Freedom Summit brought together more than 1,000 conservative activists, many of them sought-after for the Iowa caucuses. The first votes for the GOP nomination will be cast just over a year from now.
The event was sponsored by Rep. Steve King (R., Iowa), a hard-line voice against immigration reform and on other issues, along with the conservative group Citizens United.
According to Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the Democratic national chairwoman who held a news conference before the event, the gathering was “an extremist ring-kissing summit masquerading as a political forum.”
Right-wingers expressed their views at the forum.
America is “mired in darkness,” said David Bossie, head of Citizens United and a conservative filmmaker who organized the event.
Conservative talk-show host Jan Mickelson began the event by saying that Iowa conservatives were not anti-immigrant, but “what we do care about is illegal gate crashers.”
Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin called Obama “an overgrown little boy” for his executive order last year allowing some undocumented immigrants to stay in the country.
The likely candidates, besides Christie, included former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, neurosurgeon/pundit Ben Carson, and former Hewlett-Packard Co. chief executive Carly Fiorina.
Amazingly, in a move appearing to defy time, Ted Cruz managed to show up the next day at the Koch Brothers’ right-wing forum in Palm Springs, California.
Heavyweight contenders Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney were not at the Iowa summit.
Christie told the audience that he shared its political values, deriding the “conventional wisdom” that says he’s too moderate for the state that will cast the first votes in the 2016 Republican presidential race.
Christie also cited his two wins in heavily Democratic New Jersey as evidence that Republicans do not have to abandon a “belief in the sanctity of human life” to win in blue states. He also stressed the need to seek voters everywhere.
“We need a coalition that covers all parts of the country – all ethnicities,” said Christie.
Some in attendance worried that Christie would reach across the aisle. John Graves, 45, of Bluegrass, Iowa, said that Christie’s talk of being able to work with Democrats in New Jersey worried him. He said he would rather have a nominee who stands up for conservative principles rather than rushing to compromise.
There were other conservative stars – Palin, who told reporters in the Des Moines Marriott lobby Friday night she was “seriously interested” in considering a 2016 run; and real estate mogul Donald Trump, who continued his seemingly quadrennial flirtation with a White House campaign.
Rick Santorum seemed to have his parties mixed up and said the GOP should focus less on the investor and business-owning classes and speak to the anxieties of middle-class Americans.
“We need to be the party of the worker,” he said.
“People are more motivated than I’ve seen since 1980,” said Steve Scheffler, Iowa’s Republican national committeeman and president of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, a group of religious conservatives.
“They are concerned that another Obama-like administration will lead to the destruction of our country and our republic,” Scheffler said.
He said that Christie, even if he does not get overwhelming support at first from social conservatives, helped his cause Saturday. “It sends the message that he cares what conservatives think; it sows the seeds of goodwill,” Scheffler said.
Trump brought roars from the crowd when he said the two biggest establishment names were not viable.
“It can’t be Mitt, because Mitt ran and failed,” Trump shouted above cheers. “Something happened to him near the end of the election, which was so winnable. He choked.” He noted that Bush favors a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and supports national “common core” education. “The last thing we need is another Bush,” Trump said.