Nearly a dozen potential GOP presidential candidates are swarming Iowa on Saturday, courting more about 1,300 party activists who hold sway over the first nominating process in the nation.
The gathering, a state party fundraiser with tickets costing between $100 and $150, is the best attended Lincoln Day dinner in decades – an indication of the excitement about the field among Republican voters in the Hawkeye State, according to Iowa GOP chairman Jeff Kauffman.
“This is a reflection of the enthusiasm we have,” he said, noting that the event in Des Moines is attracting grass-roots activists from every faction of the GOP and every part of the state. “The entire room is going to be a cross-section and that’s what’s exciting to me.”
Democrats criticized the event, saying the candidates who are speaking are out of touch with Iowa voters.
“They’ll be treated to a circus of Republican candidates who are pushing the same old, regressive, anti-middle-class policies that throw Iowa’s working families under the bus while propping up the wealthy few,” said Jim Mowrer, vice chairman of the state Democratic Party. “From Jeb Bush to Scott Walker and from Rick Perry to Carly Fiorina, the GOP field brings nothing more to the table than failed records, disastrous positions, and backwards thinking that Iowans simply can’t afford.”
Each of the 11 candidates who are appearing at the dinner has competing needs as they address a crowd that includes members of the various wings: establishment Republicans, socially conservative evangelical voters and tea partiers.
Much of the focus is on Bush. Saturday night’s event is the largest gathering the former Florida governor has addressed in Iowa. Bush is the clear front-runner in fundraising, but he is lagging in the polls here. He speaks at the end of a tough week, in which he repeatedly stumbled when asked whether he would have invaded Iraq knowing that the intelligence about the nation having weapons of mass destruction was false. On Thursday, he said he would not have gone to war had he known the intelligence was wrong, his fifth answer to the question since Monday.
Bush is appearing a few days after announcing he would not take part in the Iowa straw poll, a long-standing but some argue irrelevant summer tradition, drawing a sharp rebuke from Kaufmann.
"We hope Governor Bush rethinks his decision and realizes that grassroots will only grow in Iowa if he waters them," Kaufmann tweeted earlier in the week, adding that he didn’t accept Bush’s explanation that he would be busy speaking at a conservative forum in Georgia. "We don't buy this excuse and neither will Iowans."
Others who will speak Saturday night include Walker, the Wisconsin governor who leads the polls here; former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who won the 2012 Iowa caucuses; and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who is trying to hold on to his father’s fervent base of supporters here while trying to expand the electorate.
Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who briefly won Iowans’ affections in 2011 before faltering on the campaign trail, is trying to win back their support. He has spent the most time here of any GOP candidate in recent months.
Former Hewlett-Packard chairwoman and 2010 California Senate candidate Carly Fiorina, who is impressing audiences here, is also appearing at the event, along with Dr. Ben Carson, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, businessman Donald Trump, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham and former New York Gov. George Pataki.
After they deliver 10-minute speeches, most of the candidates are holding receptions where they will mingle with voters and provide treats. Walker is serving Wisconsin cheese; Perry will offer ice cream.
Follow @LATSeema for political news.