Newt Gingrich, Tim Pawlenty and a trio of lesser-known potential GOP presidential candidates spoke to about 2,000 Iowa social conservatives Monday night in what organizers cast as the kickoff to the nominating contest in the key first-in-the-nation voting state.
The event, held at a church in the town of Waukee outside of Des Moines, was organized by the Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition. It offered the candidates considering a run for the GOP nomination a chance to make a positive impression on some of the most politically-engaged social conservatives in Iowa, which will hold its caucuses early next year.
While plenty of big-name possible Republican candidates turned down the group's invitation - among them Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin and 2008 Iowa caucus winner Mike Huckabee - the event did attract five likely candidates: Gingrich, Pawlenty, former Sen. Rick Santorum, former Godfather's Pizza CEO Herman Cain, and former Louisiana governor Buddy Roemer. (Openly gay Republican strategist Fred Karger, who has embarked on a longshot presidential run, was shut out of the event.)
Cain and Roemer, who are not considered top tier candidates, have already announced exploratory committees, making them the only members of the emerging GOP field to have done so. Gingrich, Pawlenty and Santorum are widely expected to run but have yet to make an official announcement.
Gingrich, the highest-profile potential candidate to speak at the forum, offered a speech centered on the importance of recognizing American exceptionalism. In a speech peppered with historical references, the former GOP House speaker said that the "secular socialist people around Obama" don't understand the nature of their country.
In a note struck by many of the night's speakers, Gingrich said the power of America comes from God, not Washington.
Gingrich complained that judges are "fundamentally out of touch with America" and argued that Republicans have failed to keep the judiciary from becoming "more alienated from the American system."
Though he has made it clear he is likely to enter the presidential race, Gingrich maintained that he is still exploring a run and said no matter what happens, "we're all going to have to be on the same team after this is over."
Pawlenty, the former Minnesota governor, said America needs "to be a country that turns toward God, not a country that turns away from God." He railed against the "immoral debt" and efforts to define marriage as between anything other than one man and one woman.
"We need to remember, as others try to push out or marginalize people of faith...the Constitution was designed to protect people of faith from government, not to protect government from people of faith," said Pawlenty, who complained that the media, judges and "elites" need to remember the Constitution grants power to the people.
Pawlenty, who has battled perceptions that he is not edgy enough to win the GOP nomination, also compared his time as governor to the current situation in Wisconsin. He pointed to his refusal to compromise with transit workers, which prompted a strike and protests, in order to maintain fiscal responsibility.
"We the people of the United States will rise up again, we will take back our country," he added, his voice going horse.
Santorum, who is known for his strong social conservatism, complained to the crowd that he had been defined as nothing more than a social conservative simple because he fought for their values.
"Once you stick your head out on the social issues, once you fight for the social fabric of this country, you're labeled," said Santorum, who pointed to his efforts to end partial birth abortion but also his work on health care and welfare reform. He joked that his children had come to think his first name was "ultra," a reference to how he had been portrayed as extreme in the media.
Roemer, whose speech was grounded in strong opposition to the influence of money and special interests in Washington, complained that while "the nation is hurting...Washington is a boom town." He vowed not to take more than $100 from any individual because America needs a president "who's free to do the right thing. Who's free to lead."
"The system is institutionally corrupt, and people of faith need to come against the corruption," said Roemer, who, with little to lose, attacked ethanol subsidies before his Iowa audience. He cast himself as a "seasoned warrior against special interest money."
Cain, a radio talk show host and the only African-American in the GOP field, told the audience that the "bad news" is that "the American dream is under attack" under President Obama.
"The good news is we are fighting back," he said. Cain went on to argue that "The United States of America is not going to become the United States of Europe - not on our watch."
Gopal Krishna, vice president of the Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition, set the tone for the event in his opening remarks, which included a statement that his organization is concerned that America has become a "multicultural haven for every weird and kinky lifestyle." Other speakers included Republican Rep. Steve King, who railed against the Obama administration's decision not to defend the Defense of Marriage Act in court, and Ralph Reed, who warned Republicans not to ignore social conservatives even as they focus on fiscal issues.