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Big Night in Iowa for Five Presidential Hopefuls

Big Night in Iowa for Five Presidential Hopefuls

By Scott Conroy - March 7, 2011

As the 2012 presidential campaign begins to heat up after a sluggish winter, the stakes are high for the five prospective Republican candidates who will address a large crowd of GOP activists at the Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition forum on Monday night.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, former Godfather's Pizza CEO Herman Cain and former Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer will have just 10 minutes each to make an impression on the crowd of several hundred expected to gather for the event in Waukee, just west of Des Moines.

The forum will mark the first time that multiple prospective 2012 contenders will share a stage in the nation's first voting state, and former Iowa Republican Party executive director Chuck Laudner said that the risks and incentives for each of them would be significant.

"If you stumble, it could very well be the end. It's that big," Laudner said. "When they're standing on the same stage and one of them doesn't measure up, they're probably not going to rebound to win support later on. So the one that wins the day takes a huge step forward. If there's 500 people in the room, and 250 say, ‘Yeah, I can support that guy,' you're one step forward to winning the Iowa caucuses."

The Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition sent out invitations to each of the prospective GOP contenders earlier this year, and each of the five would-be candidates who accepted is likely to base his campaign on mounting a strong showing in Iowa, where 60 percent of caucus-goers in 2008 identified themselves as evangelicals.

Laudner, who managed the successful effort last year to cast out three Iowa Supreme Court justices who ruled that the state's Defense of Marriage Act was unconstitutional, made a stark prediction about the fates of the speakers who will appear at the event on Monday night.

"One of these five won't be in the race by the straw poll and another of them won't be in the race after the straw poll," Laudner said, referring to the August poll in Ames that will offer a critical barometer of the race. "And so Monday night is the beginning of the winnowing process because you can't split the social conservative vote 10 ways."

Of all the potential candidates scheduled to speak at the forum on Monday night, Gingrich's performance will perhaps be the most closely watched.

The former House speaker revealed last week that he was establishing a website to promote his exploration of a presidential bid. But that announcement was overshadowed by the negative publicity Gingrich garnered after two aides released conflicting statements on his presidential intentions, and a curious press conference in Georgia generated more questions than answers.

In an appearance on Fox News on Friday night, Gingrich suggested that he was further away from making an official announcement on a White House run than many had expected.

"I think it's going to take a fair amount of time," Gingrich said. "At least, a number of weeks -- maybe six or seven."

But even without any candidates officially in the race, Monday night's event will be treated as one of the first significant markers of the 2012 campaign.

The Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition has one of the most extensive political reaches of any interest group in Iowa. Organizational director Drew Klein said that the group made over 560,000 individual voter contacts in the state during the 2010 midterm elections.

Although fiscal matters dominated the discourse during the midterms and figured to play a leading role in the presidential race, Klein indicated that his group would work to ensure that social issues remained at the forefront of the discussion in Iowa over the next year.

"We want to see a true conservative candidate. We want a candidate who knows how to manage things financially, as well as someone who has the spine to stand up on moral issues," he said. "Certainly we know we're not going to find the perfect candidate, but I don't think we need to water down our message."

Scott Conroy is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at sconroy@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @RealClearScott.

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