And They’re Off: Republicans descend on Iowa summit, with 2016 in the air
Christie goes courting conservatives in Iowa for 2016, beginning an intricate dance.
More than a half dozen likely Republican president candidates will gather Saturday in Iowa in a bid to earn the support of would-be supporters and caucus-goers at a summit hosted by Iowa Rep. DES MOINES — Chris Christie will speak for just 20 minutes today at the Iowa Freedom Summit, but it will be a very important 20 minutes if he wants a shot at running for president.At least 10 potential Republican presidential candidates will test their messages and their appeal Saturday before an audience of Iowa activists, but former Florida Gov. Republican audiences have cheered the New Jersey governor’s famously frank talk as he’s campaigned in the state — officially for others, not himself — during the past five years. As I talked to people working for the major GOP presidential candidacies, I asked who had signed up the organizers and super-volunteers crucial to turning out the vote in the first contest in the GOP nominating process.
Fill it to capacity, — that’s 1,200 audience members and another 200 credentialed media — bring in a lineup that includes almost 10 would-be, might-be, could-be Republican presidential hopefuls, and it’s looking like the 2016 campaign is officially underway. Still, Christie will venture into new Iowa territory on Saturday, speaking to an audience full of the kinds of strict social conservatives who have held sway in the state’s leadoff presidential caucuses for a generation.
Steven King, the summit has become a crucial touchstone for credibility within the conservative wing of the Republican Party and an essential gateway to anyone with serious designs on the 2016 Republican nomination. “Iowa is not just a bellwether state, but also a testing ground to get your feet wet,” said Ray Kirk, a bundler for Mitt Romney in 2012 who is attending the Freedom Summit. The event is King’s attempt to have an outsized impact on the outcome of the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses, which will take place just one year from now.
The reason will be on stage with Christie: Ted Cruz, Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee, Rick Perry and a few others, each considering a presidential bid and carrying a more natural appeal among evangelical voters. He wants them to oppose any kind of deal with Democrats and the White House that would lead to the kind of immigration reform that many leaders at the Republican National Committee have suggested might help the party begin to cut into the huge gap that Democrats enjoy when it comes to the Latino vote. The latest outcry came when he saw the announcement that one of the so called DREAMers — young people in this country illegally because they were brought here as children by their parents — would be seated with the first lady at the State of the Union. Neither will be at the forum, which is expected to draw nearly 100 reporters to Iowa for the first big event of the 2016 GOP campaign. “If I do run, I’ll be myself and we’ll see how Iowans like that,” Christie told reporters last week while visiting Iowa for Gov.
So will big-name conservatives such as Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin – and lesser-known politicians such as former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina and neurosurgeon Ben Carson. The two have a relationship that dates to 2009, when King defended Christie before the House Judiciary Committee, where he was called to testify as a U.S. attorney while in the final weeks of his winning campaign for governor.
But he has also stressed to GOP leaders that winning elections — where the most success comes from the political center — should be of paramount concern for the party. His big Iowa debut came the next year, when he headlined a fundraiser for Branstad that drew 800 people and netted $400,000 in the closing weeks of Branstad’s comeback campaign. Branstad called Christie’s speech that night, a list of budget battles with Democrats punctuated with humor and tough talk, the best he’d heard from a Republican since Ronald Reagan.
Jeb Bush and Romney making moves to join the race, “it’s more difficult” for Christie. “It looks like he’s trying to pick off a little bit of everybody. The upside of starting early is obvious. “This isn’t like a normal election, where you convince people,” says Craig Robinson, the founder of the Iowa Republican website. “You have to convince them and keep them convinced.” That takes skill, and that skill is getting snapped up by other campaigns. Neither Romney nor Bush will be attending the event ostensibly on account of scheduling difficulties, but Bush’s support for immigration reform puts him at odds with King, while Romney has been trying to soften his image with Hispanic voters after his call during the 2012 campaign for illegal immigrants to engage in “self-deportation.” How the more conservative speakers are received will offer an early window into the minds of the party base, which turns out in droves to the caucuses, when faced with a massive Republican field. The 2012 cycle proved that early favorites might not be in that position for long, as flavor-of-the-week candidates rose and fell spectacularly in the polls.
But the current maneuvering period is critical for would-be campaigns, who are engaged in an arms race for donors and staffers in the decidedly grassroots state. And that means meeting lots of residents face-to-face. “My husband’s from New Jersey,” says Gloria Mazza, the executive director of the Polk County Republican party headquarters, which includes Des Moines. “And he thinks he has a better shot of meeting his old governor here than if we still lived in New Jersey.” Ryan Rhodes, a former GOP congressional campaign operative who’s now a communications director for Carson, said such contact with Iowans on the campaign trail – and at today’s Freedom Summit — makes it tough for candidates to dance around issues. “Even if you’re an average Iowan, you can personally talk to just about every presidential candidate,” said Rhodes, “We’re spoiled that way.
An avowed The Democratic opposition research group American Bridge released a video Friday mocking Republican candidates for “bowing to the King,” featuring clips of candidates praising the congressman interspersed with some of his most controversial statements. This came through clearly in a conversation with one operative who said of a talented volunteer, “He’s not with Bush, he’s with me.” Jeb Bush is setting the pace of the national GOP contest by launching a massive fundraising operation to intimidate his rivals.
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