One by one, half a dozen Republican presidential hopefuls auditioned Saturday before an Iowa audience of economic and social conservatives, pledging lower taxes, tougher border enforcement and a tighter-fisted approach to federal spending.
The candidates also echoed one another in reiterating their opposition to abortion and to legalizing same-sex marriage.
“One man. One woman. Lifetime relationship,” said former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who joined former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in advocating a constitutional amendment spelling out that domestic arrangement.
“We need to affirm that’s what marriage means,” said Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas.
The forum in downtown Des Moines attracted hundreds of activists who sacrificed an unusually mild summer day -- and a nearby arts festival -- to hear nearly four hours of back-to-back political speeches in a darkened arena. In short, they were the kind of devotees that each candidate covets as he eyes the state’s caucuses that open the presidential balloting in January.
There was little in their remarks to differentiate the six speakers.
Asked to respond to a handful of preselected questions, each vowed to cut taxes as well as federal spending, to simplify the tax code, and to oppose federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. “We don’t need to hurt the weak to help the strong,” Brownback said.
The candidates celebrated the Senate’s rejection last week of immigration legislation and endorsed an enforcement-first approach, starting with the construction of a 700-mile fence along the U.S.-Mexico border and the creation of an electronic employee verification system.
Brownback and Romney did split with others by declining to endorse the so-called Fair Tax bill, which would replace the federal tax code with a 23% national sales tax. Each endorsed tax fairness and simplification as a goal but said that particular proposal needed more study before he could embrace it.
Among the six, only Rep. Duncan Hunter of El Cajon declined to take a no-tax-hike pledge, saying a national emergency might require him to break that vow. Touting his record of “voting for every major tax cut that has come in front of Congress for 26 years,” Hunter said he nevertheless would not make a promise he might someday have to break.
For the most part, the candidates ignored one another. Former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson took a veiled swipe at Romney, who has turned more conservative since eyeing the White House.
Thompson called himself the “true” and “reliable” conservative in the race. “I didn’t become right-to-life on the road to Des Moines,” he said of his antiabortion stance.
Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado, a crowd favorite, drew cheers by challenging others to forswear Spanish-language advertising as they seek Latino support.
Two candidates were notably absent: former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and Sen. John McCain of Arizona, both of whom have alienated many conservatives with their break from orthodoxy on social issues and immigration, respectively.
Earlier Saturday, Romney discussed his Mormonism when a woman at a campaign forum asked how faith would guide his actions as president. “Where would the Bible be in that process?” Mary Van Steenis asked. “Would it be above the Book of Mormon or would it be beneath it?”
“I don’t know that there’s any conflict at all between the values of great faiths like mine, like yours, like other faiths, like Jews who don’t believe in the New Testament,” Romney replied. “People of faith have different doctrines and different beliefs on various topics of a theological nature. But in terms of what it is we are going to believe and also based on our values for our country, I think we come from the same place.”
Van Steenis was not satisfied. “I asked, If you had to look to one source, what would it be?” she told reporters after the event in Pella, Iowa. “He didn’t really respond to that. This is serious to me.”
The Romney campaign later issued a statement saying Romney took his gubernatorial oath of office on his family Bible. “He swore to follow the Constitution and uphold the laws of the land,” spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom said. “That would continue to be his highest duty as president.”
This report includes information from the Associated Press.