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Potential 2012 GOP Candidates Convene in Iowa

Potential 2012 GOP Candidates Convene in Iowa

By Tom Bevan - March 8, 2011

WAUKEE, Iowa - It's on. The 2012 presidential nominating season officially began last night as five potential Republican contenders appeared at a forum outside Des Moines hosted by the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition.

The early-bird candidates (Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, Buddy Roemer, Tim Pawlenty and Rick Santorum) took turns speaking for 10 minutes apiece to an audience of social conservatives. Each man played up his pro-life, pro-family credentials, stressed the role of faith in American life, and even cast the country's debt crisis in moral terms.

Gingrich, making his first appearance in Iowa since announcing his exploratory committee last week, said he believes America faces its greatest crisis since the 1850s. Not known for a tendency toward understatement, the former House speaker compared the importance of 2012 to the election of 1860 - the one that brought Abraham Lincoln back to Washington.

An unrelenting advance of liberal institutions in America over the past 80 years will require a "deep and profound" political change to reverse, Gingrich told the crowd. He outlined four executive orders he pledged to sign on his first day as president - steps he said would start the process of change. They ranged from eliminating White House policy "czars" to moving the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.

Tim Pawlenty, the former governor of neighboring Minnesota, touted his accomplishments as a "blue" state chief executive who managed to both balance a budget and focus on faith. "We need to remember this and always remember this," Pawlenty said. "The Constitution was designed to protect people of faith from government, not to protect government from people of faith."

Herman Cain, the former CEO of Godfather's Pizza, roused the crowd by proclaiming the "the United State of America will not turn into the United States of Europe. Not on our watch."

Cain, a Georgia-based talk show host who has never held elective office, is a longshot in the fledgling GOP field, but he is not alone. Santorum, former senator from Pennsylvania, lost in a landslide when he ran for a third term in 2006. But on Monday night, the ardent social conservative was among friends, and he took the opportunity to recount his many fights on behalf of the pro-life community - many of which, he noted, earned him unflattering labels. "My children, after reading newspapers all those years used to think my first name was 'ultra,'" Santorum said to appreciative laughs from the crowd.

Perhaps the most uphill candidacy is that of Buddy Roemer, the former governor of Louisiana - and a former Democrat - who, like Gingrich is married for the third time. Among this crowd, Roemer didn't back into it. "I'm honored to be with you in Iowa in faith and freedom!" he said, stressing his childhood as a "churchgoing Methodist boy from a cotton field in north Louisiana." After a long period as a divorced man, he told the crowd, "I married the piano player in a church next door to my own. Thank you, Jesus."

Republican activists in Iowa have been eager to start the caucus season, and some have chafed at the relative lack of attention that the flock of potential candidates has paid to the Hawkeye State. Those feelings were on full display last night as more than 2,000 people packed every corner of the Point of Grace Church in Waukee to get a first glimpse of at least part of the Republican field.

Ralph Reed, founder of the National Faith and Freedom Coalition and a featured guest at the event, echoed the crowd's sentiments. "Some said March 7 was too early to start," he quipped. "I was ready to start the process on March 7, 2009."

Reed also sought to re-establish the muscle of social conservatives, citing an exit poll from 2010 showing that evangelicals comprised 32 percent of the electorate and had voted for Republicans over Democrats by an overwhelming 78 - 21 margin. This base formed the "booster rocket" that powered big Republicans gains last November, he proclaimed. "If you turn your backs on the pro-family, pro-life constituency," Reed added in a warning to the GOP Washington establishment, "you will be consigned to permanent minority status."

Steve Scheffler, president of the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition, fired off a warning shot of his own for any Republican from other states contemplating any primary calendar mischief next year. "I'd like to tell our friends in the 49 other states: don't get cute, we're going to be first," Scheffler said. "That's just how it is."

Tom Bevan is the co-founder and Executive Editor of RealClearPolitics and the co-author of Election 2012: A Time for Choosing. Email: tom@realclearpolitics.com, Twitter: @TomBevanRCP

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