DES MOINES -- No wonder Iowa Republicans can’t make up their minds on a presidential nominee.
The two candidates leading the polls, Herman Cain and Mitt Romney, were no-shows at the state party dinner Friday night, as they have been for much of the campaign in Iowa. Rick Santorum, who boasted of visiting all of the state’s 99 counties, is polling in the single digits. So is Newt Gingrich, the only candidate who brought the crowd of about 1,000 people to its feet, but who still doesn’t have a staff here.
“There’s no one that’s really rising to the top that all Republicans can get excited about,’’ said Joy Corning, who served as the state’s lieutenant governor in the 1990s.
That Gingrich got the most enthusiastic applause is likely to fuel increasing speculation he will be the next candidate to surge in the polls. Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry have led the pack in Iowa only to see their support come crashing down. It’s unclear whether Cain will be able to maintain his popularity in the face of allegations that he sexually harassed two employees when he led the National Restaurant Association in the 1990s.
“The party is looking for another Ronald Reagan, and they don’t come around very often,’’ said Steve Roberts, a former state party chairman, at the downtown fundraiser honoring the former president. “There’s still a real question mark in most people’s minds.’’
Perry, the only candidate besides Romney with the money and organization to run a competitive national campaign, appears to be tweaking his message in the hope of making it a two-man race. The governor of Texas, who started off his campaign more than two months ago calling Social Security a “Ponzi scheme,’’ now sounds more subdued, saying “I’ll show the courage to reform entitlements.’’ But in an effort to steal the political outsider mantle from Cain, who has never served in public office, the governor of Texas has been ramping up his trademark anti-Washington talk. He decried “Beltway lobbyists’’ protecting corporate tax loopholes – even as he plans his third trip to Washington next month to make inroads in the political establishment.
“Some want to reform Washington with a pair of tweezers,’’ Perry said. “I’m going to bring the wrecking ball.’’
Gingrich, the former speaker of the House, has sought to position himself as the elder statesman in the field, frequently chiding debate moderators for trying to pit the candidates against one another. He went even farther Friday night by doling out detailed compliments to each of his rivals – except the ones who weren’t there.
“I am here with very fine competitors, but not an opponent,’’ he said. “We only have one opponent, and that’s Barack Obama.’’
Gingrich got the biggest reaction from the crowd when he vowed to challenge President Obama to seven unmoderated debates, in the style of the legendary 1858 Abraham Lincoln-Stephen Douglas debates that catapulted Lincoln to national prominence and, ultimately, the presidency. If Obama refuses, Gingrich said he will trail the president from stop to stop in the fall campaign. The audience showed their approval with a standing ovation.
“Newt provided the biggest spark tonight,’’ said Darrell Kearney, a fundraiser for one of the local Republican parties. “Based on the audience’s response, he probably pulled in some new supporters.’’
Even so, Gingrich faces daunting challenges with just two months before the Jan. 3 caucus. He will get another shot at the limelight Saturday when he faces off with Cain in a debate sponsored by tea party activists in Texas.