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Barbour, Gingrich show differing style, priorities

From NBC's Domenico Montanaro
DES MOINES, Iowa -- Before activists here, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R-MS) and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA) gave a glimpse of what they might focus on if they launch likely presidential runs -- and they revealed different approaches and priorities.

Barbour focused largely on the economy.

"The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing," Barbour joked, adding, "and the main thing is economic growth."

Barbour was generally well received, and earlier in the week, he showed no qualms in expressing his emotion on the issue of abortion. But with Iowa being a caucus state dominated by social conservatives, some attendees in the hallways and in the audience questioned that focus.

Another speaker, Emmett McGroarty, on a panel on family values, wrapped his speech with what appeared to be a mild shot at Barbour. He said social-conservative values are part of "the main thing, and that's the main thing I'm focused on today."

That drew a mix of laughs and applause.

As he's said before, Barbour stressed that the presidential election needs to be about policy, "because these are the wrong policies. ... These policies make it harder to create jobs."

Barbour showed a mix of humor and seriousness, as he also criticized President Obama for the health-care overhaul law and the administration's energy policy. He described the energy policy not as an "energy" one, but "an environmental policy." He said the policy is to "drive up the cost of energy, so people wont use it."

"We need more oil; we need more gas; we need more coal; we need more nuclear; we need more American energy," Barbour said, adding that the U.S. should also generate energy from wood and waste. "We need all of the above," he added.

Gingrich also hit Obama on energy and health care, but stressed values first as well as foreign policy. Notably, even though he mentioned values as a top priority, he did not speak at length about it. He instead focused much of his speech on other topics, including the president's handling of the situation in Libya.

In the past week, Gingrich has faced charges of flip-flopping on Libya -- being for a no-fly zone before he was against it. He argued today that he moved on his position, because, "I was just trying to follow Obama." That was met with polite laughter.

He went on to argue that if someone were to say jump in the lake, he would have said no. But "once we’re in the lake, I say, "Swim as fast as you can."

Gingrich said the administration has sent a "confused" message on its goals in Libya. The goal, Gingrich said, should -- unequivocally -- be to take out Khaddafy. He even called for ground troops -- just not American ground troops.

In a brief question-and-answer session in the hallways here with reporters after his speech, he attempted to clarify. He said there should be American-trained Arab "advisers," already in the region, who should help the rebels and try to oust Khaddafy.

"We need to be clear the goal is to get rid of Khaddafy," Gingrich said. He called the administration's message "obscure and inaccurate" and added that the "confusing" message helps Khaddafy's supporters because they are "confused about what we're doing."

He demurred, however, when asked if it was a mistake for former President George W. Bush to try and bring Khaddafy back into the fold diplomatically.

He also hit Obama for not consulting closely enough with Congress.

"When the president decides to take the country to war," Gingrich said, "there needs to be a serious public dialogue." He added the president needs to go to Congress for a supplemental to fund the military action.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour are among a group of Republicans gathered in Iowa hoping to potentially win over voters for 2012.