DES MOINES, Iowa — An array of Republican presidential prospects made their opening pitch to conservative activists at the Iowa Freedom Summit on Saturday, setting the stage for a long campaign to win the state’s first-in-the-nation caucus.
The event, organized by Iowa Congressman Steve King and conservative advocacy group Citizens United, was the highest profile gathering yet of likely 2016 candidates and its organizers billed it as an unofficial kickoff to the Republican primaries. Speakers included Chris Christie, Scott Walker, Ted Cruz, Rick Santorum, Rick Perry, Mike Huckabee, Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina, and Sarah Palin, among others.
“Let the pandering begin!” Iowa radio host Jan Mickelson joked in the event’s opening speech.
Walker, who has intrigued Iowa politicos with his Midwestern roots and national profile, delivered a polished speech touting his brutal fight to curb collective bargaining rights for public sector unions and subsequent recall election.
"I think that sends a powerful message to Republicans in Washington and around the country — if you're not afraid to go big and go bold, you can actually get results," Walker said to applause. "And if you get the job done the voters will actually stand up with you."
Walker methodically listed his "common sense conservative agenda" in Wisconsin, citing legislation that restricted abortion, expanded access to concealed firearms, and cut taxes. He also brought up his state's lawsuits against the health care law's individual mandate and the president's recent immigration action.
"If they can work in Wisconsin, they can work anywhere in the country," he said of his policies.
The address represented a presidential coming out party of sorts for Walker, who has drawn less attention as Romney and Bush dominate the establishment side of the conversation and candidates like Paul and Cruz dominate the tea party side. The knock on Walker among Republicans has always been his laid back style — some have likened him to former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, another Midwesterner whose lack of charisma dragged him down in the 2012 presidential race. Judging by the crowd's reaction on Saturday, however, Walker may be able to hold a room better than his critics expected.
Another speaker who received a strong reception was Cruz, who has clashed with his own party leadership as much as he has with Democrats in his effort to block the White House's agenda — even if it means shutting down the government.
"Every candidate is going to come to you and say they are the most conservative person that ever lived," Cruz said. "Talk is cheap. One of the most important roles that men and women will play here in Iowa is to say 'don't talk, show me.'"
Christie spoke late in the day to a dwindling and tired crowd. He made the case that the "conventional wisdom" that his famously antagonistic New Jersey style was "too blunt" for Iowa was mistaken.
"I can tell you that you'll always know who I am, you'll always know what I believe and you'll always know where I stand," he said.
Like Walker, Christie leaned on his pro-life views to make his case to Iowa Republicans.
"The notion that our party must abandon our belief in the sanctity of life to be competitive in blue states is simply not true and I am living proof," he said.
The event featured not one, but two past winners of the Iowa caucuses: Santorum and Huckabee.
"We don’t win because too many people think we don’t care about them."'
Santorum, who won in 2012, told the audience that Republicans need to be "pro-worker" and faulted those in the party for putting too much emphasis on business owners.
"We don't win because too many people think we don't care about them," Santorum said.
His 2012 campaign was often sidetracked by culture war fights, especially over contraception and gay marriage, but Santorum has downplayed those issues recently in favor of a broader call to remove economic barriers to marriage. In fact, he got a little annoyed after receiving three questions at a press conference on gay rights, asking a reporter whether other candidates were getting the same treatment.
Meanwhile, Huckabee, who won in 2008, has gone the opposite route. Recently he's suggested states could potentially ignore a Supreme Court decisions legalizing gay marriage and criticized President Obama for exposing his children to Beyoncé's sexy dance moves and lyrics.
"They are the Supreme Court," Huckabee said in his speech. "Not the supreme being."
Palin, who has said this week she is considering a run for president, enthralled and confused the crowd with a long, winding speech in which she called Obama an "overgrown little boy" and touched on topics ranging from immigration to the film "American Sniper."
"Screw the left and Hollywood who can't understand what we see in someone like Chris Kyle!" Palin said, referring to the late Iraq War sniper whose memoirs inspired the film.
GOP leaders, including Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush, have raised increasing inequality as a pressing issue in recent weeks, but Palin chastised fellow Republicans for emphasizing "this subjective income gap that we're supposed to be so obsessed with now."
She left the stage as she entered it — with Taylor Swift's song "Shake It Off" blaring from the speakers.
Palin wasn't the only speaker unhappy with recent talk of wealth and income gaps on the right, which is emerging as a wedge issue within the GOP field. Huckabee also sneered at the notion of fixing "income inequality."
"Sometimes, I think the greatest challenge we face economically is intelligence inequality, because we will never be able to build a strong economy when we punish productivity," Huckabee said.
"I think the greatest challenge we face economically is intelligence inequality..."'
Neurosurgeon Carson told the audience the next president should "seal that border" within one year and bashed Democrats on health care.
"We do not need the government controlling our health care and that's why I've been such a vehement opposer of Obamacare," he said. "Even if it worked I would oppose it. It doesn't."
Fiorina, the former CEO of Hewlett-Packard, made the case that she could rebut Democratic talk of a GOP "war on women" while aggressively prosecuting Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton's record.
"I, too, have traveled hundreds of thousands of miles around the globe, but unlike her, I have actually accomplished something," she said of the former secretary of state's travels. "You see, Mrs. Clinton, flying is not an accomplishment — it's an activity."
The event's organizer King is one of the party’s most flamboyant critics of immigration reform and he's poised to play a major role in vetting candidates in Iowa. While he did not bring the topic up in his own speech, a group of immigration protestors rose up during Perry's afternoon address shouting slogans and holding up signs reading "Deportable," a reference to King's description of a DREAMer who attended the State of the Union with First Lady Michelle Obama. Another protestor later interrupted Christie as well.
The event was as notable for its absences as for its attendees. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a vocal immigration reform advocate, and former presidential nominee Romney, who lost the Hispanic vote by a 71-27 margin in 2012, both declined to attend. So did Sen. Rand Paul, who has said he could support a path to legal status for undocumented immigrants, although he has previously joined King on the trail in Iowa. Sen. Marco Rubio, who co-sponsored the bipartisan Senate immigration bill that passed in 2013, also skipped the gathering. Many Republican strategists are concerned that their party will erode its presidential viability in 2016 and beyond if they continue to alienate Latinos with inflammatory rhetoric and demands for increased deportations.
In a not-so-subtle bit of trolling, King told the audience that he believed the next president would be one of Saturday’s speakers. He said that Republicans need to select “a full-spectrum constitutional conservative" as their nominee.
Bush and Romney may have made the right call in avoiding the right-leaning audience. Donald Trump, who delivered a speech in which he said he was (again) considering a presidential run, garnered enthusiastic applause and laughter as he went on an extended diatribe against both prospective candidates.
"It can't be Mitt, because Mitt ran and failed," he said.