On Saturday, several potential 2012 Republican presidential candidates and conservative groups will gather in Iowa for the Conservative Principles PAC conference, hosted by Iowa Rep. Steve King. The event is another opportunity for those involved in Iowa politics to flex their muscles in the primary.
“Congressman King wants to be directly involved with all the candidates so he can make his own evaluation,” said Ann Trimble-Ray, a CPPAC staffer, adding that King also wanted to provide more opportunities for the candidates to visit the state and give people “one-on-one time with them, because that’s what we prize here in Iowa.”
Voters, Trimble-Ray said, want to meet candidates in person: “look them in the eye, shake their hand, and ask them questions.”
The conference features likely presidential candidates Newt Gingrich, Michele Bachmann, Haley Barbour, John Bolton, Herman Cain and Rick Santorum. But those potential candidates not in attendance may cast a longer shadow.
Tim Pawlenty, the only person considered to be a top-tier candidate who has yet declared, had to decline because he “had previously scheduled activities this weekend that he was not able to rearrange,” according to Trimble-Ray, who said the former Minnesota governor was “grateful for the invitation.”
Also not attending is former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, considered to be as much of a frontrunner as the race has at the moment. After an embarrassing upset in the state in 2008, when he took a distant second to Huckabee, Romney has reportedly decided to all but forego Iowa, where he does not seem to have any chance of winning.
Noticeably missing is former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, who won the Iowa caucus in 2008 and continues to lead in polls there.
“We found that interesting too,” Trimble-Ray said of the fact that Huckabee declined the invitation.
Perhaps the most prominent absence, however, is Mitch Daniels. Daniels has not yet committed to a run and as Governor of Indiana, is currently dealing with a conflict with the Indiana legislature. But at the last presidential forum in Iowa, Daniels’ presence loomed large despite his absence. Daniels’ call for a “truce” on social issues became a central theme at the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition forum earlier this month, with many of the candidates and presenters attacking the idea.
The call for a “truce” seemed to make Daniels an untenable candidate in Iowa. But the landscape potentially changed Friday when the Indianapolis Star reported that Dick Armey, head of FreedomWorks and a power player in the tea party movement, said that he would “absolutely” endorse Daniels were he to seek the Republican nomination.
“Mitch is exactly the kind of candidate that our folks across the country are looking for,” Armey told CNN.
Iowa has thus far presented itself as a state whose support for any candidate will hinge on social issues, but if Armey’s support turns Daniels into the tea party candidate, social issues could be put on the back burner and diminishing Iowa’s role in the debate.
It remains to be seen what the other likely candidates, and the conservative groups in attendance Saturday will make of Armey’s statement.
“It probably does create buzz,” says Trimble-Ray, who suggested that the other potential candidates might mention it. She recalled King’s statement at the Iowa Faith and Freedom forum that “If we get the culture right, the economy will be right eventually.”
“That gives you an idea of where he stands,” she said. “We’ll see if those who are coming to the event agree.”
Many of the likely candidates appear perfectly happy to cater to that sentiment. Former Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour denounced the idea of a truce Friday morning, speaking to conservatives in West Des Moines, Iowa. He proudly proclaimed his pro-life credentials, attacking abortion, and spoke of religion. Pawlenty, Santorum, Gingrich, and Cain took similar tacks at the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition event.
But Trimble-Ray explained that it was not the only important issue to voters in the state.
“I believe social issues are always relevant to Iowans,” she said. “The measuring sticks used here are many and varied; they are part of the overall picture, however.”
She said that some Iowans “are exclusionary and believe that if the candidate isn’t right on the social issues they don’t deserve their support. But others look at the bigger picture,” she continued, “and that’s what makes Iowa a great place for the first in the nation caucus.