Republicans to court Iowa conservatives at Family Leader forum

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The Republican presidential candidates most actively courting Iowa voters are set to speak Saturday afternoon at a gathering of social conservatives, one of the biggest cattle calls remaining before the Jan. 3 caucuses.

Saturday’s Thanksgiving Family Forum is organized by a leading Iowa conservative, Bob Vander Plaats, and his group, the Family Leader. The format is meant to mimic the holiday dinner, with six candidates -- Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, Rick Perry and Rick Santorum -- gathered around a table participating in a discussion moderated by Frank Luntz.

Vander Plaats, a three-time gubernatorial candidate, founded Family Leader to be a galvanizing force for social conservatives ahead of the state’s lead-off nominating caucuses. He also has his critics, one of whom drew a response as Vander Plaats spoke at a closed-press gathering before the presidential forum Saturday morning.

In a Los Angeles Times profile, Doug Gross, who defeated Vander Plaats in the 2002 Republican gubernatorial primary, said his former rival “sees where the parade is going and jumps in front of it.”

“I think he’s ambitious and articulate, but not particularly deep,” Gross said. “He doesn’t seem very authentic. The more someone tells me how they’re doing this for public service, it’s usually in service for themselves.”

According to the Des Moines Register, which was invited to attend the Saturday morning event, Vander Plaats responded by warning activists that “attacks are going to come at you.”

“In a lot of ways they’re not attacking Bob Vander Plaats, they’re attacking the one I serve,” he said, according to the newspaper.

Vander Plaats has said he will decide after the forum whether to endorse in the race, and that endorsement would be considered a prize in the unsettled GOP race.

Unlike New Hampshire, where Mitt Romney is considered the overwhelming favorite, Iowa seems up for grabs. An average of recent public polling compiled by Real Clear Politics puts Gingrich out front of the GOP field with 20.8%, followed closely by Cain at 19% and Romney at 17.5%.

Romney, along with Jon Huntsman, are skipping the event. Huntsman wrote Iowa off immediately after joining the race. Romney has maintained he is competing in all of the early states, but his absence Saturday -- he instead has a town hall meeting planned in New Hampshire -- only confirms the notion that he is focusing on those contests later in the calendar.

Gov. Terry Branstad said earlier this week that Romney is making a dangerous gamble by not competing in the Hawkeye State, risking a poor showing that could undermine his campaign nationally.

Other candidates see a strong showing in Iowa as key to carrying their campaign forward. Santorum recently completed a tour of all of the state’s 99 counties. Perry Saturday launched another new television ad, touting his plan to overhaul the federal government.

“Replacing one Washington insider with another won’t change a thing. If you want an outsider who’ll overhaul Washington, then I’m your guy,” he says.