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Iowa Family Values Group to Welcome Trump

Iowa Family Values Group to Welcome Trump

By Scott Conroy - June 25, 2013

For a few months in early 2011 -- a period that many Republican leaders would rather forget -- Donald Trump elbowed his way into the conversation surrounding the 2012 Republican presidential nomination.

Trump’s half-baked conspiracy theories about President Obama’s place of birth had already been thoroughly debunked, and his past life as a champion of causes antithetical to the conservative movement were well-known at the time, but the bombastic real estate mogul and reality TV star nonetheless earned outsized media attention for his efforts.

The spectacle that Trump created was widely seen by serious political observers as just that: a show. Nonetheless, the prevailing sense that it was all just a publicity stunt did not stop the cameras from following along as Trump helicoptered into New Hampshire and dipped his toe into the presidential campaign pool in other ways.

Trump even briefly led in the polls as the unstable (and, at that time, incomplete) field of GOP candidates took shape before ending his act in May 2011 and announcing he would stay on the sidelines.

When Trump bailed on a confirmed appearance at an Iowa Republican Party fundraiser, resulting in the cancellation of an event that would have been a significant boon to the state party’s coffers, many GOP donors turned on the man who had once intrigued them.

“In Iowa, your word is your bond," then-party Chairman Matt Strawn said. "We are disappointed that Mr. Trump has chosen not to honor his commitment to Iowa Republicans.”

The drama-steeped episode seemed emblematic of why any future presidential flirtations by Trump would not be taken seriously.

That sentiment, however, will soon be put to the test in the Hawkeye State.

On Monday, the Des Moines Register reported that Trump has accepted the Iowa Family Leader’s invitation to speak at its second annual leadership summit in Ames on Aug. 10.

In a sign that history may soon repeat itself, Bob Vander Plaats, president and CEO of the influential Christian conservative group, told RCP in an interview that Trump “sure would be” a serious candidate in 2016 if he decides to run.

“I think the best predictor of the future is to look at the past, and he’s been a pretty successful guy, so I wouldn’t count him out,” Vander Plaats said. “We’re really looking forward to having Mr. Trump join us. Because we’re in Iowa, I think we also have a responsibility to make sure that everybody has a fair playing field.”

Vander Plaats pointed to Trump’s protectionist-tinged rhetoric on trade with China and his “bold stance on Obama’s record regarding what the birth certificates say” as reasons why the host of NBC’s “The Apprentice” continues to attract interest from rank-and-file conservatives in the nation’s first voting state.

In justifying his pro-family-values group’s invitation to Trump, who has been married three times, Vander Plaats pointed to the 2012 candidacy of the thrice-married Newt Gingrich, who also was greeted with open arms by socially conservative organizations.

“Part of him bringing out strong positions on both sides is why we invite him,” Vander Plaats said of Trump. “We don’t believe there’s any perfect candidate. The last perfect one, I think, they nailed to the cross. So we’re not lowering our standards, we’re upholding our standards.”

In addition to Trump, two prospective 2016 GOP presidential candidates have also confirmed that they will speak at the event: Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.

The forum will mark something of a start to the next stage of pre-campaign positioning in the wide-open race for the nomination. Both Cruz and Santorum will look to make an impact among the expected large crowd of conservative activists who typically dominate the GOP caucuses.

Trump’s motives, on the other hand, are not as clear-cut. And as Iowa once again takes fire over its privileged place on the nominating calendar, some state conservatives are speaking out against the Family Leader’s decision to offer Trump a platform.

Shane Vander Hart, editor-in-chief and founder of the Christian conservative news and commentary site Caffeinated Thoughts, on Monday lamented Trump’s messy past with Iowa and his history of changing position on key issues to suit the political winds.

“One would think with an event whose tagline is ‘leading with principle over politics’ The FAMiLY Leader would only invite speakers who have principles,” Vander Hart wrote. “I sincerely hope that The FAMiLY Leader would rethink this, but since the invitation has been sent and accepted it’s probably too late.”

Iowa is not the only place where conservative groups have offered Trump a microphone in the last few months. He recently was a featured guest at two right-leaning confabs in Washington, D.C.: the Faith & Freedom Coalition conference and CPAC, the nation’s largest annual gathering of conservatives.

And last September, he was invited to deliver a convocation speech at Liberty University, which was founded by Jerry Falwell and bills itself as the world’s largest Christian university.

Despite not being alone in lending Trump credibility, the Family Leader’s significant role in setting the early tone for the 2016 GOP fight makes its enablement particularly significant. Reached on Monday, several prominent Iowa Republicans suggested that the group’s motive for inviting Trump was rooted in financial incentives.

While there is little doubt that Trump’s appearance could help sell tickets to the gathering, Vander Plaats strongly denied that his group’s objectives are financial.

“There’s no money exchanging hands between Mr. Trump and ourselves with him coming out here, so that has nothing to do with it,” he said.

Whatever the reason for the high-profile businessman’s visit, the collective reaction to his appearance in Ames will say a lot about whether his mischief-making ability remains intact for yet another presidential cycle. 

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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