The Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition’s presidential forum unofficially marked a critical time for candidates in Iowa to start sealing the deal with Iowa’s ample number of social conservatives. It’s hard to say that some candidates won, while others lost. For the most part, all the candidates did well. Some just stood out more than others.
For an event that attracted scores of media and six presidential candidates, the most important people in the room were the activists who sat through the five-hour event. The Super Bowl takes less time if you don’t count parking, but even that event allows those in attendance to stretch their legs at halftime. That wasn’t the case on Saturday night.
In talking to a number of people after the event, the winners event were Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Santorum. Ron Paul and Michele Bachmann did well too, but the other three shined. Herman Cain on the other hand was a disappointment.
Ordering the top three is difficult. I was looking for more than just which candidate could strike a chord with the audience. I was considering what each candidate needed to get of the event politically, which is incredibly important with the caucuses less than three months away.
Here is how I rank it. If you disagree, the comment section is all yours.
1. Rick Perry
Texas Governor Rick Perry did exactly what he needed to do on Saturday night. Perry looked and sounded like the conservative candidate many were excited about when he entered the race back in August. Gone was the unpolished candidate who we have come to know in the debates, and in his place was a relaxed, confident candidate who commanded the stage. Facing a roomful of more than 1000 social conservatives, the question that Perry needed to address was whether or not he was one of them. He gave the audience plenty of reasons to believe that they have a lot in common.
Perry did two things in his speech that were incredibly important. He touted his long list of pro-life, pro-family accomplishments as governor, but maybe more importantly, he shared his own personal testimony. As Perry bared his soul to the audience, the room fell silent. It was at that point that Perry captivated those in the room.
Perry’s pro-life accomplishments, including defunding Planned Parenthood, passing a parental consent law, and requiring women in Texas who are seeking abortions to have a sonogram, are impressive, but it was his personal testimony on Saturday night that may change Perry’s fortunes in Iowa because it will help build trust with social conservatives across the state.
Unlike the rest of candidates, Perry didn’t shrink away for taking issue with Herman Cain’s recent flubbing on the issue of abortion. Perry didn’t mention Cain’s name, but everyone knew whom he was talking about when he said, “It is a liberal canard to say I am personally pro-life, but government should stay out of that decision. If that is your view, you are not pro-life.”
Perry was the clear winner on Saturday night because he accomplished everything he needed to do.
Promote his pro-life, pro-family record: CHECK
Convince the audience that you are an authentic social conservative: CHECK
Make a personal connection with the people in the room: CHECK
Capitalize on your opponent’s recent problems: CHECK
Define yourself instead of letting your opponents or the media do it: CHECK
I’d have a spring in my step today if I was the Perry campaign in Iowa. Again, this was the candidate that many were expecting when he entered the race.
2. Newt Gingrich
If you looked closely, Saturday night’s event encapsulated Newt Gingrich’s entire presidential campaign. As has always been the case, Iowa Republicans respect and genuinely like the former Speaker. Gingrich wowed a crowd of hardcore social conservatives, which speaks volumes given that this is a constituency group that could be difficult for Gingrich to win over. On the other hand, Gingrich spent most of the event by himself in the kitchen. This means that his campaign didn’t purchase a table, nor did any of his supporters.
At times on Saturday night, Gingrich seemed like a man among boys when discussing the serious issues facing America. He not only had full command of the room, but also of the issues that he was addressing. While he shined when talking about fiscal issues and energy policy, he also artfully talked about key pro-family issues.
The reaction to Gingrich’s speech was unanimous. He more than impressed everybody that TheIowaRepublican.com talked to at the end of the event. One has to wonder where Gingrich would be today had he not stumbled out of the gate last spring. He is beginning to build an actual campaign team in Iowa. Sources tell TheIowaRepublican.com that he was interviewing potential Iowa staff while in Des Moines this weekend. Time will tell if he can take his good debate performances and at events like the one on Saturday night and become a real contender in Iowa.
3. Rick Santorum
There is no denying the fact that Santorum moved the audience emotionally on Saturday night. His pro-life testimony, which included a detailed account of the story his son Gabriel, who only lived for two-hours after being born at just 20 weeks, silenced those in the room and brought most of them to tears.
Unlike some of the candidates running for president, nobody doubts Santorum’s pro-life credentials. Sharing his personal testimony and the heartfelt story about his son was touching. It also helped explain to the audience why he is so passionate about the life issue.
Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum were the names most mentioned by guests following Saturday night’s forum, so it’s obvious that he did really well with the socially conservative audience. However, while Santorum succeeded in connecting with people, he came up short politically, which is why he is ranked behind Perry and Gingrich.
What Santorum needed to accomplish on Saturday night was to convince those in the room that his candidacy is worthy of their support and that it’s important for them to support his campaign. For a candidate who rhetorically asks “why” throughout his speeches so that he can explain his position on a number of issues, Santorum needed to tell the crowd why he’s the candidate they need to back.
For Santorum to do well in Iowa, he needs to own a huge percentage of the kind of people who attended the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition’s forum. To do that, he needed to not only inspire, but also convince them. Instead, he continues to build the case that he is the candidate who social conservatives can trust. That is a question he has already answered.
4. Michele Bachmann
The Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition forum was a setting that fit Bachmann perfectly. Bachmann is cut from the same cloth as Iowa’s social conservative activists. She’s one of them, and her remarks pushed every button that she needed to push. While Bachmann was sharing her personal testimony, Herman Cain was surrounded by a media gaggle in the back of the room. Prior to the Iowa Straw Poll, the media would have never taken their eyes off of Bachmann in a situation like that. This is a clear indication of how far her star has fallen.
Technically Bachmann nailed it. She was the only candidate to even address the topic of illegal immigration, a topic that scores big points with activists. The only problem was that she just doesn’t command the room like she did in the early months of her campaign. It also didn’t help that her campaign didn’t have a literature table like the rest of the campaigns, which makes it difficult to sign up activists who may have been motivated to help her campaign. To her credit, she did work the room before the event began.
Like Perry, Bachmann needed something to spark her struggling campaign. Being good just wasn’t good enough.
5. Ron Paul
Ron Paul should be commended for participating in events like the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition. Paul’s campaign strategy doesn’t require him to participate in events that are dominated by traditional caucuses goers. To understand that, one just needs to look at the massive crowd of 1,200 college students who turned out to see him on the University of Iowa campus the night before.
Paul does have a number of staunchly conservative legislators who are backing his campaign, so it’s not entirely correct to assume that he doesn’t have much appeal to social conservatives in Iowa. Still, before Paul spoke, at least 100 people got up to leave the event. It was also apparent that he wasn’t connecting to most of the people in the audience during his remarks.
6. Herman Cain
Herman Cain’s campaign has turned into a comedy of errors. Cain arrived at the event site early, which would have allowed him ample opportunity to work the room of over 1000 caucus goers. Instead, Cain chose to stay in his tour bus parked near the event facility for close to an hour. When he did come in, it was only to speak and talk to the media for a bit. After that, he was on his way.
If that wasn’t bad enough, Cain’s campaign literature table sat empty while the majority of people entered the hall. By the time it was set up and staffed, it was too late to engage with attendees of the event. Not only did the Cain campaign miss out on people arriving, they also packed up and went home early. At 7:54 p.m., an hour and half before the event was over, the Cain campaign had cleared out. They did leave a few supporter cards, but most of those were still there as the final people left for the night.
It’s apparent that the Cain campaign simply doesn’t know what they should be doing. Having a veteran like Steve Grubbs on board should help. Grubbs is a veteran of numerous caucus campaigns. Yet Grubbs was nowhere to be found unless you were checking Facebook. While Cain’s campaign struggled with basic campaign fundamentals, Grubbs was living it up at a James Bond themed party in California with his wife. From the photos that were posted, it looked more fun than a candidate cattle call in Iowa.
As always, Cain’s speech was well delivered, but he did little to make up for his confusing statements on abortion that dominated the headlines last week. He devoted most of his speech to the topic of segregation. There is no problem with that if he had he tied it in with an issue like abortion. Had he done that, it would have been a powerful moment. Instead, he made a bus analogy, saying that he remembers signs on that instructed African Americans to sit in the back of the bus, and now he owns a bus with his face plastered on it.
It’s almost as if Cain didn’t realize that the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition forum was an opportunity to get past his recent abortion comments. Instead, he acted like being there was some sort of unpleasant chore that he was forced to do. Cain did nothing to help his campaign in Iowa. In fact, by basically ignoring the issue and the concerns of the people in the room, he may have inflicted more damage on his campaign than if he had not decided to show up.
Photos of Gingrich, Bachmann, and Paul by Dave Davidson
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