WAUKEE, Iowa—In his first public appearance since declaring plans to explore a presidential bid, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., called for a unified front against what he called President Obama’s “secular, socialist’’ agenda.
The forum, sponsored by the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition, was an important test run for the thrice-married Gingrich, who is banking on the religious conservatives who dominate GOP primaries to overlook his messy personal life.
The event at a packed, suburban megachurch near Des Moines gave hundreds of Iowa voters their first side-by-side look at a portion of the GOP field about 11 months before the state’s first-in-the-nation caucus.
While the economy is widely viewed as the leading issue in the fledgling 2012 campaign, the forum was tilted toward moral issues. Steve Scheffler, president of the Iowa Christian Alliance, set the tone when he decried the Obama administration’s “assault on pro-family culture.’’
Other than Gingrich, the only other top-tier candidate at the forum was former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty. Lesser-known participants included former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, former Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer, and former Godfather’s Pizza CEO Herman Cain.
Gingrich declared that the United States is an exceptional nation at a crossroads, comparable to the decade before Abraham Lincoln was elected. He referred to his potential competitors as friends and said, “It’s going to take all of us to defeat the left.’’
The former speaker also touted efforts by Republicans in Washington to take away funding from Planned Parenthood, and he called for the next president to reinstate a ban on federal funding to international aid groups that provide abortion.
Pawlenty vowed to oppose abortion and defend heterosexual marriage. “We need to be a country that turns toward God, not a country that turns away from God,’’ he said. “The constitution was designed to protect people of faith from government, not government from people of faith.’’
Absent from the forum were the potential candidates who top the national polls at this early stage: Mike Huckabee, Sarah Palin, and Mitt Romney. Of the three, Romney is viewed as an all-but-certain contender, but he is not expected to compete as aggressively in Iowa as he did in 2008, when he spent roughly $10 million and came in second to Huckabee.
“He’s not a candidate yet, so he’s not doing a candidate’s forum,’’ said Romney spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom.
A report from Gallup on Monday underscored the extraordinary uncertainty in the GOP field. Since 1952, Gallup polls have always pointed to a clear Republican frontrunner by this point in the campaign, who in most cases went on to win the nomination. In contrast, the most recent Gallup survey showed a three-way tie between Huckabee, Palin, and Romney, with none of them breaking 20 percent.
Also in Iowa on Monday were Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, who spoke at three different student campuses as part of a lecture series sponsored by the conservative Christian group The Family Leader; and Michael Cohen, a top adviser to businessman Donald Trump, who has been encouraging the celebrity businessman to run for president. Cohen met with Iowa Republican Party Chairman Matt Strawn aboard one of Trump’s private jets after he arrived at the airport.
“Based on the questions he was asking and his interest in meeting people in Iowa today I got the sense that they are legitimately exploring the prospect,’’ Strawn said. “My advice was that if he’s serious about taking the next step, Iowans are going to expect him to be here.’’
Paul told reporters he’s “50/50” on a presidential run. “Trips like this will help me make up my mind,’’ he said.
In other signs that the slow-starting race is getting underway, The Des Moines Register reported Monday that Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and Gingrich will participate in a March 26 forum sponsored by Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa. Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, Cain, and Santorum are also slated to be there.