DES MOINES – Just two months from the kick off of the 2012 presidential race at the Iowa caucuses, five Republican contenders for their party’s nomination wooed more than 1,000 activists at the state GOP’s Reagan dinner here on Friday. Missing are the two candidates leading in the Des Moines Register’s most recent poll of caucus-goers: Mitt Romney and Herman Cain.
Summaries of the evening’s speeches follow:
Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas
In the first of many reminders this evening that the candidates are speaking at a dinner in honor of the late president Ronald Reagan, Paul began his speech by recalling a helicopter ride with the former president to Andrews Air Force Base.
Their subject of their conversation? The gold standard, of course.
“He saw the money issue as being a very important issue,” said Paul, who has made monetary policy a centerpiece of his political career.
The veteran congressman, who once ran for president on the Libertarian Party ticket, spent much of his speech talking about the need to cut spending. He threatened doom if that doesn't happen.
“What we’re witnessing today is the failure of a system. It’s the end of an era,” Paul asked the audience. “What’s going to come of this? Are we going to drift like the rest into more government solutions or are we going to say enough is enough?”
Paul was introduced with a video featuring his son, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who hailed his father’s consistent record as a fiscal conservative in Congress.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry
Perry began his speech with the characteristic burst of energy that has marked all of his campaign appearances in recent weeks. He jogged onto the stage, introduced by a movie-trailer-style video that portrayed Perry as a job-creating man of the people.
After recognizing the other candidates, Perry riffed on the Occupy Wall Street protest movement by saying that he and his competitors were trying to “occupy the White House.”
Perry’s speech focused on promoting the 20 percent flat-tax plan he unveiled last week in South Carolina, a plan he is painting as a bold change.
“What’s lacking in Washington, DC isn’t ideas,” Perry said. “What’s lacking up there is courage.”
He took aim at the current budget-cutting process in Washington, saying the reason a 12-member “supercommittee” is charged with reducing spending is “because the president kicked the can down the road on reforming the entitlements and cutting spending.”
In a nod to his fellow candidate Newt Gingrich, who has railed against the committee process, he said, “What has it been Newt? We’ve had twenty different committees now?”
Perry said that he would have the “courage” to reform entitlements and cut spending, and promised to impose a pay freeze on Congress and all federal employees except those in the military or public safety business until the budget was balanced. He has pledged to do that by 2020, in part by campaigning across the country to get a balanced budget amendment added to the Constitution.
Before the event, Perry mingled with attendees of the dinner for about 40 minutes. His aides then struggled to get him into his seat as he seemed intent on shaking every hand on his way to his table.
Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn.
In contrast to Perry, Bachmann skipped the gladhanding to wait in the VIP area until shortly before her speech. Once she took the podium, the Minnesota congresswoman described herself as a “lone voice in the wilderness” last summer when she defied her own party leadership to oppose raising the debt ceiling.
The nation’s cap on borrowing was raised anyway, but Bachmann argued that she had been proven right.
“We had enough revenue coming into the treasury, we could sufficiently pay the interest on the debt,” she said. “There was absolutely no need for the country to go into default.”
Noting that the national debt is nearing $15 trillion, Bachmann warned that the United States should take heed of the financial crisis facing Greece. “What we’ve just observed was the trailer for where the United States is going.”
The Minnesota congresswoman reminded the Iowa crowd, as she often does, that she was born in their state and she pointed to her intense summer weeks of campaigning for the Iowa straw poll as reaffirming her commitment to running for the presidency.
“I’ve been renewed in hope and love for this nation because of what I saw this summer in Iowa,” she told the crowd.
The crowd listened politely, but did not applaud until about seven minutes into Bachmann’s speech, when she recited her sure-fire Republican crowd-pleaser line: “Barack Obama will be a one term president.”
Former Sen. Rick Santorum
Santorum opened with a quip only his Iowa audience could understand.
“I did a Grassley,” he proudly announced.
The former Pennsylvania senator on Thursday became the first (and likely only) presidential candidate to visit all 99 counties in the state – a feat also accomplished by veteran Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa., who recommended it to Santorum.
Not about to stop, Santorum on Friday launched a “Faith, Family, and Freedom” tour, delivering the first in a series of three speeches that will cover moral and cultural policies. He continued to focus on this theme at the Reagan dinner, telling the crowd, “America is not just about taxes and spending. It’s not just about the size of government. It’s not just about the economy… We cannot have limited government without strong families.”
Santorum also focused on his economic plan and told the crowd he wants to cut corporate taxes to zero for American companies that manufacture products in the country.
“Rural America will not do well,” he said, “unless we have vibrant economy there and we won’t unless we bring manufacturing and processing jobs back to America.”
Departing from the usual GOP economic themes, Santorum raised income inequality – an issue that, when Democrats raise it, cause some Republicans to cry class warfare.
“We have a lot of talk about growing the economy from Republicans,” said Santorum, who often refers with pride to his blue-collar roots in western Pennsylvania. But we don’t talk about something that’s vitally important, and that’s income mobility.”
He told the crowd that workers on the lower end of the income scale now see greater income mobility in Europe that in the United States.
“Why? Because we’ve lost our jobs to China, South Korea, Mexico and countries all around the world,” he told the crowd, adding “We need someone who has a plan to get those jobs back.”
As often is the case with Santorum, he was one of the first candidates to arrive at the dinner and among the last to leave.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich
Gingrich drew by far the biggest ovation of the night for pledging to tail President Obama around the country after the Iowa caucuses for the remainder of the campaign if he does not agree to seven Lincoln-Douglas style debates during the general election.
“The White House will be my scheduler,” Gingrich vowed. “And wherever he appears, I will appear four hours later.”
The former House speaker registered the highest marks on the applause-meter, just as he did two weeks earlier at the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition dinner in Des Moines. He started off with a line sure to be well received in this corn-growing state, explaining why he’s a supporter of ethanol. “I believe that if my choice is for money to go to Iran or Iowa, I pick Iowa,” he said. He continued by praising each of his opponents in turn:
Ron Paul, he said, had rightly called for audit of the Federal Reserve and talked about monetary policy; Rick Perry was his “mentor” in extolling the 10th amendment and has the right direction in his energy plan, even if Gingrich only agrees with “most” of it; Michele Bachmann deserves praise for standing up to the Republican leadership and trying repeal the Dodd-Frank Act. Of Rick Santorum, Gingrich opined: “No one has done more to try to arouse America to understand the challenge of radical Islamists.”
Gingrich did omit praise for two presidential candidates – Mitt Romney and Herman Cain, neither of whom was in attendance. But the former speaker puckishly added that he would have said nice things about them if they’d shown up.
“We only have one opponent. That is Barack Obama,” he said, to a loud round of applause from the audience.
Along with the admiration lavished on his rivals, Gingrich did take the time to talk about his own record. “I am the only candidate who at a national level has balanced the budget four years in a row,” he said, noting that unemployment dropped while he was in Congress. He touted his experience with the legislative branch, knowledge of how to get things done in Washington, and his ability to mobilize a national movement, something Gingrich did in the leadup to the so-called “Republican revolution” of 1994 which gave his party control of the House of Representatives for the first time in four decades.