AMES, Iowa -- The midterm elections may still be a few months away, but in Iowa it already looks like 2016.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, called for abolishing the IRS, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal accused President Obama of turning the U.S. into Europe, and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee said we need a "spiritual transformation," as a gaggle of potential Republican presidential contenders that also included Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pennsylvania, courted evangelicals Saturday at the Family Leadership Summit at Iowa State University.
Evangelicals made up a majority of Republican caucus-goers last time around, and the confab offered an early look at how the party's 2016 hopefuls will tailor their pitches to conservatives. The short answer, for many: a heavy dose of Obama-bashing and a hard line on immigration.
Cruz, who took the stage to rousing applause, laid out seven recent conservative victories -- among them, the defeat of gun control legislation, the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby ruling, the denial of a visa for Iran’s UN ambassador nominee, the freeing of Sudanese prisoner Meriam Ibrahim, and the FAA’s decision to lift a ban on U.S. airline flights to Israel.
"The lesson from these seven victories is there is a path to win," the firebrand Texas senator told the crowd. "It is not being namby-pamby. It is not standing for nothing and giving into the ways of Washington. It is, as Reagan said, painting in bold colors and not pale pastels."
Cruz teased fellow Texan Perry after briefly forgetting which number he was on. "I could say 'oops,' but that would make news," he said. Perry's 2012 presidential bid tanked after he blanked on one of the departments of the federal government that he said he wanted to eliminate during a debate.
But Cruz saved his harshest joke for the president, referring to the "Obama diet." "It works very well," Cruz said. "All you do is every day, you let Putin eat your lunch.”
And he wasn't shy about giving his conservative listeners the red meat they were looking for. "We need to stand for life, we need to stand for marriage, we need to abolish the IRS, we need to repeal Obamacare," said Cruz, taking the stage hours after his father, Pastor Rafael Cruz, told the crowd to "vote according to biblical principles."
As for Perry, who is embarking on a three-day swing through the Hawkeye State, he was at pains to take a hard line on immigration, a key issue in Iowa. In one of the biggest applause lines of the night, the Texas governor declared, “The message to the president is clear: if you will not secure the border of our country, then the state of Texas will.”
That was a contrast in tone from some points in Perry's 2012 campaign, when he called fellow Republicans heartless for not wanting to educate children brought into the country illegally -- a line which helped sink his campaign. In response to the current border crisis, where thousands of Central American children are pouring into Texas, Perry took the dramatic step of deploying 1,000 National Guard troops to the border early this month.
Rick Santorum, who won the Iowa caucuses in 2012, said Republicans should scrap their focus on small business owners in favor of one that also speaks to blue collar workers, just as he often tried to do last time around.
But the former Pennsylvania senator echoed Perry on immigration -- both illegal, and legal -- calling for a policy “that says no to amnesty, that says yes to securing the border, and that says that we need to dial back on chain immigration in this country.” (Santorum also said he wasn’t going to “hawk” his book, which he was signing outside the auditorium, before indicating it held the key to attracting more voters for the GOP.)
On his third swing through Iowa in a year, Jindal focused primarily on keeping education in the hands of parents, not the government, and accused Obama of butchering the American Dream.
“When I hear this president speak, when I see his policies, it seems he wants to make this country more and more like the countries in Europe," said Jindal, the child of Indian immigrants and one of the few non-white presidential prospects. "I don’t know about you, but that’s not the American Dream my parents taught me."
The Louisiana governor has positioned himself as a leader in the fight against the Common Core, tough learning standards for elementary-through-high-school students, which have been championed by the Obama administration.
"The federal government needs to get out of our classrooms," said Jindal at the summit. “They don't think we are smart enough to pick the right schools for our children."
And Mike Huckabee, an ordained Southern Baptist minister, gave a pitch that was heavy on fire and brimstone.
“We are living in some very dangerous times,” said Huckabee, who won the Iowa caucuses in 2008. “While I realize that many of us are very focused and interested in politics, we need to be praying for a spiritual transformation in this country. Because what has to happen first in America is that we get our hearts right, and then we get our politics right.”
Huckabee urged more support for Israel in its conflict with Hamas, saying he recently witnessed a recent “miracle’ in which “a strong east wind came from nowhere” and pushed a Palestinian rocket away after Israel’s Iron Dome defense system failed.
“Every American needs to understand that God is not dead,” said Huckabee. “I fear one thing -- that we think politics alone can save this country.”