DES MOINES - Five of the well-known candidates for the Republican
nomination for president of the United States spoke to the annual
Reagan dinner here in the capital of Iowa Friday evening. On January
3, (less than two months away) Iowans will cast the first actual votes in
the 2012 campaign cycle, and the race is shaping up to be one of the more
important Iowa caucuses since 1976 when they played an important role
in the election of Jimmy Carter.
GOP frontrunners Mitt Romney and Herman Cain did not attend the
dinner; they were speaking at another event in Washington, DC. Jon
Huntsman also was not in Iowa.
Before the dinner, I took a tour of several campaign headquarters in
the Des Moines area. Those of Herman Cain, Michelle Bachmann and
Rick Perry were in the relative early stages for their final efforts, only
a few days before finally determined to be January 3. Bumper stickers
and campaign brochures abounded, but as I discovered at the Iowa Straw
Poll in nearby Ames a few months before, campaign buttons, formerly a
political staple here and in other states, are in short supply this year.
All of the candidates had tables at the Hy-Vee Arena where the dinner
was held, and the crowd of Iowa Republicans paid $75.00 for the meal
and the opportunity to meet the candidates and shake their hands.
It was my first chance to meet Governor Rick Perry, who not surprisingly
turned out to be especially charming and engaged with all who came to
meet with him. Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, too, was
friendly and all smiles as a crowd, waiting to enter the hall, gathered
around him. Michelle Bachmann, Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich entered the
Arena just before the dinner began, so attendees had to wait until the event
was over to meet with them at booksignings and hospitality suites.
Most of the speeches were pedestrian, especially in light of the stage of the
campaign. One speech stood out, however, that of Newt Gingrich, and
once the program began, it was clearly his night. It should come as no
surprise, in light of how well he has performed (by general agreement) in
the candidate debates so far, and in his sudden and steady rise in the polls
from lower single digits, to noticeable double digits (and usually in third
place behind Romney and Cain);
Gingrich brought many to their feet in the Arena as he closed his remarks by
repeating his challenge to President Obama, should Gingrich be the GOP
nominee, for a series of three-hour Lincoln-Douglas styled debates in
September and October with a timekeeper but no moderator. Although he
has mentioned this before, Gingrich added in Des Moines that if Mr. Obama
declines to debate with him, he would do what Abraham Lincon did in 1858
to persuade the reluctant and far-better known Stephen Douglas to agree to
the debates. As historian Gingrich pointed out, Lincoln, rebuffed by Douglas,
then followed the senator around the state of Illinois where Douglas was making
campaign speeches, and after each Douglas speech, he would refute them before
local reporters. When Douglas realized that Lincoln was getting all the coverage,
he finally agreed to the debates. “If President Obama does not agree to debate
with me if I am the Republican nominee, I would then use the White House
schedule as my schedule and speak after him wherever he goes.” It was the best
line of the night (although it must be conceded it was not otherwise an evening of
In contrast to critical comments by most of the candidates against each other
in recent debates and campaign ads, Gingrich devoted the first part of his remarks
to praising the other candidates by name and singling out what Gingrich felt was
their best contributions to the campaign so far. Left out of the evening were the
recent sharp confrontations between Mr. Romney and Mr. Perry, and the current
hubbub over allegations of harassment by Mr. Cain. In regard to the latter,
wherever I went in Des Moines, I found no evidence that the charges against
Mr. Cain were hurting him so far with Republican voters.
Although Mr. Romney does not have a campaign office yet in Iowa, he did have
staffers at the dinner. I was assured by them that Mr. Romney would be making
a full effort in the next two months here.
In fact, although Mr. Romney is not leading in latest Iowa polls, his numbers
are strong. Most observers think that if he does win Iowa, followed by New
Hampshire where he is far ahead, the race for the nomination could be over
much sooner than anyone expected only weeks before this.
A final note about Mr. Gingrich’s prospects. He is still a very long shot to win
the nomination, although he probably will be the last candidate to challenge
the former Massachusetts governor seriously before the convention. As Mr.
Gingrich returns to prominence in the GOP campaign, there is little doubt that
the media forces which launched the current imbroglio over Herman Cain will
turn their attention once again to Newt Gingrich. How he handles this likely
assault will probably have much to do with whether he has only a “bubble”
or something more successful. In the past, he has been thin-skinned and
careless in response to the “smears” against him, however unfair or wrong
(I have known him and followed his career for more than 27 years), but this
time, with so much at stake, and with Mr. Cain’s poor responses as a fresh
example of what not to do, he will need all the skill and self-discipline he can
muster to be competitive in Tampa, and possibly, beyond.
Copyright (c) 2011 by Barry Casselman
All rights reserved.