Sharing an audience for the first time in Iowa, five prospective Republican candidates for president spoke of godliness and chorused their opposition to legal abortion and all things Obama in an audition Monday night before a capacity crowd of social conservatives.
Former Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer, a surprise entry who formed an exploratory committee just last week, could have spoken for all the White House hopefuls in attendance when he opened his remarks by declaring, “I’m a pro-life, traditional values man.”
The forum was hosted by the Faith and Freedom Coalition, an organizational successor to the Christian Coalition, and drew about 1,000 of Iowa’s most dedicated political activists to a star-spangled auditorium at Point of Grace Church outside Des Moines.
The event was the first multi-candidate gathering in a state that is set to begin the presidential nominating process, with precinct caucuses scheduled for Feb. 6. As such, the event drew dozens of reporters from around the country, Europe and even a pair of camera crews from Japan.
The candidates essentially pledged the same thing, with a few variations in language and emphasis: defending marriage as a covenant between man and woman; curbing abortion; slashing the federal deficit; and shifting power away from Washington in favor of state and local governments.
Tim Pawlenty, the former governor of Minnesota, delivered one of numerous condemnations of President Obama and the secular tilt that he and others blamed on the country’s fraying morality.
“We need to be a country that turns toward God,” he said. “Not a country that turns away from God.”
Playing off the title of his recent book, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich decried the “secular socialists” surrounding the president and said they “could not possibly lead the country to a successful future.”
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum decried the “entitlement attitude” propagated by Democrats in Washington and suggested Obama’s push for national healthcare legislation was akin to a dope dealer trying to hook someone on drugs.
“If that’s not a moral issue,” Santorum said, “I don’t know what is.”
There was no interaction among the candidates, who took turns speaking for about 10 minutes each and never appeared together onstage. The closest anyone came to engaging in debate was Roemer, who pledged to accept no more than $100 from any single source. That, he said, is the only way to accomplish what everyone else promised to do.
The fifth contender on the stage, former Godfather’s Pizza chief executive and radio talk show host Herman Cain, echoed GOP criticisms of Obama as insufficiently convinced of American exceptionalism.
“I have a breaking news announcement for President Obama: The United States of America is not going to become the United States of Europe. Not on our watch,” he said.
The long absentee list included former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, the winner of the 2008 Iowa caucuses and the closest thing to a front-runner in the state; former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who finished second in Iowa last time, but may place less emphasis on the state in his repeat run; former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who has visited Iowa to market her books but shown no evidence of mounting a campaign; and Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, who has generated perhaps the greatest buzz of late in “tea party” circles.
“Naturally, we’d have loved to have them here,” said Steve Scheffler, president of the host organization. Still, he said, the candidate turnout exceeded most expectations and will probably accelerate what has been an unusually slow-starting Iowa campaign.
“This is the beginning of what we’re going to see: a conversation between Iowans and the candidates,” Scheffler said beforehand.