DES MOINES, IA -- The two current Iowa front-runners were conspicuously absent, but five other GOP presidential candidates were on hand to promote their conservative bona fides to about a thousand Iowa Republicans Friday night in Des Moines.
With Mitt Romney and Herman Cain giving the state Republican Party's annual Ronald Reagan Dinner a pass, the remaining candidates refrained from taking shots at each other, focusing their fire squarely on President Barack Obama.
“Sixty days. Sixty days from right now we start the process of choosing Barack Obama’s Republican successor, and it starts here in Iowa," state GOP Chairman Matt Strawn told attendees just before the candidates spoke.
For the third Iowa candidate confab in a row, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich won one of the strongest responses from the conservative audience. (He was equally well received at the National Association of Manufacturers Forum this week and at an Iowa Faith and Freedom forum two weeks ago.)
Gingrich spent much of his speech praising the four other rivals with whom he shared the stage. "This is a great group. There are a couple I wish were here tonight. I would have said nice things about them. But we'll skip over that,” he said. “I am here with very fine competitors, but no opponents. We only have one opponent, that's Barack Obama.”
Gingrich also brought up his idea of Lincoln-Douglas style debates, promising he will hold President Obama to them if he is the nominee.
“If I end up as the nominee, in my acceptance speech if the president has not yet agreed, I will announce that from that day forward for the rest of the campaign, the White House will be my scheduler,” Gingrich told the crowd to cheers. “Wherever the president appears, I will appear four hours later.”
Texas Gov. Rick Perry won laughs for joking that the Republican field is "involved in a project called Operation Occupy the White House," going on to describe his anti-Washington credentials.
In a speech heavily themed around having the "courage" to address tough issues like spending cuts and entitlement reform, Perry declared that "the future of America is too important to be left to the Washington politicians."
He promised to freeze salaries for members of Congress and non-military federal employees, and he criticized the ongoing congressional "Super Committee", addressing competitor Newt Gingrich directly by asking "we've had 20 different committees over 30 years?" to address the debt.
"It's easier to people to put studies together than it is to have the courage to stand up say here's what needs to be done and do what needs to be done," Perry said in an energetic speech that received just polite applause from the crowd.
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum was quick to tout his recent achievement in the Hawkeye State.
“I am proud to announce that I did a Grassley –- I have been to all 99 counties in the State of Iowa,” Santorum said as he started, referring to Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley. “I have had a wonderful experience.”
Later, Santorum, who is still trailing in the polls despite his constant presence in Iowa, talked about the Faith, Family, & Freedom Tour he launched today.
“Everybody else has put up an economic plan; I’ve put up an economic plan. But no one has put up a plan to strengthen the American family, to make sure we have strong marriages in our country, to defend the institutions of marriages,” he said. “I did."
Perry, Santorum, and Ron Paul worked the crowd before the event started, posing for photos and taking questions from some famously inquisitive Iowa voters, while Michele Bachmann and Gingrich lingered in the VIP room until the dinner began.
During her address, Bachmann sounded themes familiar to Iowans who visited her high-energy stump events of July and August, during the run-up to her win at the Ames Straw Poll.
Reprising her message from this summer’s fight over the debt ceiling, Bachmann also voiced concerns about events in Europe, where Greece at one point this week deferred a bailout package from the European Union, setting off panic in world markets.
“Maybe they just didn’t want to cut back on their spending,” Bachmann said. “The rest of the world looked at Greece and said, ‘Are you out of your mind? Take the deal or you go down the drain.’”
Reiterating a message she introduced during an economic policy address earlier this week, Bachmann used Greece’s story as a warning.
“What we need to do right now in the United States is take a real good look in the mirror,” she said.
Texas Rep. Paul advocated for the elimination of the income tax, saying that the idea of liberty means that Americans should be able to keep what they make.
“Shouldn’t it also follow that we have a right to the fruits of our labor? Which implies that there should be no income tax!"
Paul offered a typically passionate pitch to slash spending, end wars aboard, and eliminate numerous federal agencies -- including the Education Department.