By Bob Eschliman
The Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition Fall Banquet, held on the Iowa State Fairgrounds in Des Moines last night, was anything but a debate. But, it was another opportunity to separate the wheat from the chaff in the 2012 Republican presidential nomination field.
I did not attend the event, which appeared to draw approximately 1,000 people, but I did watch the televised portion on C-SPAN, which included approximately 40 minutes of remarks from the organizers and speeches by IFFC president Steve Scheffler and American Faith & Freedom Coalition founder Ralph Reed Jr.
In fact, I watched a replay of it just to make sure I didn’t miss something.
The remaining three hours were focused solely on the six candidates who RSVP’d for the opportunity to state their case to what was once the only representative of perhaps the biggest caucus voting bloc: Christian evangelicals. A lot has changed since the 1980s, but one thing remains the same; some of the candidates show up thinking they have to pander.
Each candidate was given a loose mandate to speak for only 10 minutes. One candidate barely exceeded six minutes, while another spoke for more than 20. There was no penalty for going over the allotted time limit.
After his or her respective speech, each candidate then fielded four questions. Two were asked on behalf of the IFFC by Scheffler, while the other two were asked on behalf of the Iowa Energy Forum by Iowa Senator Jerry Behn, a Boone County farmer who ran briefly for governor last year.
The candidates largely did very well for themselves on the questions, which appeared to be provided to allow the candidates to distance themselves from each other in an apples-to-apples sort of way. But, the candidates actually did a halfway decent job of that in their speeches.
As always, there were winners, losers, and those who just held onto the ground they’ve already gained. And, purely by happenstance, I felt there were two candidates in each of those categories.
The biggest loser of the night was Reed, who took the opportunity during his time on stage to beg for money from “everyone age 7 or over” at the event, and then closed his speech by thanking the great state of “Ohi — uh — Iowa” for putting on such a wonderful event. Perhaps he was trying to exorcise the gaffe demons from the room before the candidates spoke, but I found myself losing almost all of the remaining respect I had for the man last night.
As far as the presidential candidates go, the big losers were Herman Cain and Rep. Ron Paul. Both seemed to come off as panderers who were only interested in sounding like “one of the gang” to the audience. Cain failed to dispel questions about his commitment to pro-life and family values issues, and Paul failed at several points to reach a coherent thought pattern.
Of the two, Cain needed a momentum shifter the most, so I’m declaring him the biggest loser among the presidential candidates. Twice said, “I’m 100-percent pro-life, no exceptions.” And, he did talk about what role he would take as president to defend life, but the role he pledged to take was only a little bit stronger than that of Paul. And, Cain doubled-down on his “9-9-9 Plan,” which has been losing support since he first suggested it. In the end, he did very little to heal his self-inflicted wounds on social issues, and opened the door for even more attacks on his positions on economic issues.
Paul’s speech was by far the worst, but he probably didn’t lose a lot of supporters at the end of the night — although a lot of his college student supporters are probably scratching their heads over his plan to eliminate federal student loans — but he really didn’t lose as big as Cain. Overall, he did very little to move his campaign out of the high single-digits, if the caucus were to be held right now. He opened with a bizarre reference to the Book of Judges in which he attempted to liken the argument of decentralized “states rights” governing (the judges and the prophet Samuel) over a centralized “federal” government (the Israelites’ constitutional monarchy that led to King David). Factually accurate in a college history professor sort of way, it was completely devoid of real Truth. Paul has consistently refused to acknowledge the existence of an external righteous law that supersedes the laws of man that have codified debauchery ranging from sodomy to the murder of the unborn.
The Lost Opportunities
Other than Cain, the only other candidates in the race who should’ve been desperate for a bump from last night’s event were Rep. Michele Bachmann and Texas Gov. Rick Perry. And, while neither of them did anything to hurt their campaigns, they failed to light a fire in the crowd that would lead to a major improvement in their standing in the caucus, if it were held now.
Perry had the weaker of the two speeches, largely because he failed to reach the 10-minute “limit” imposed by event organizers while everyone else exceeded it. In fact, he barely clocked in at six minutes, failing to capitalize on an opportunity to provide depth to a speech that lacked specifics, but was high on self-deprecating humor. And, it reopened the old criticism that he lacks the physical energy to be President. He did, however, score one of the high points of the night when he eviscerated — I think the word I used at the time in my live blog was “disemboweled” — Cain for his wishy-washy position statements on the pro-life issue (even though his stated position is equally weak).
Bachmann’s speech had some of that fiery punch we all liked about her early on in the campaign, along with a little of her record in defense of family values social issues. But, like Perry, she failed to provide specificity to her proposals, leaving the door open for other candidates who followed to take them for their own and run with them. Allowing someone to take your intellectual property and “make it their own” may work on “American Idol,” it’s a sign of failure as a politician. She also had one of the high points of the night, though, when she told the audience it was going to take a miracle to fix America, but she believes in miracles.
Both candidates needed to do better than this, signaling perhaps they aren’t ready for the job. It’s just about time to stick a fork in both of them.
Former U.S. Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum stole the show last night. One did it with a substantive speech that stirred the very core of each audience member’s conservative heart. The other opened up his own heart for public examination.
Gingrich was the former, taking all of the elements the speakers before him broadly brushed over and provided both historical and practical significance to those issues. He fully and completely explained why the 2012 presidential election is THE critical election — the “most important since the Election of 1860,” as he put it. That wasn’t the only time he took something said by Bachmann earlier in the night and proceeded to completely own it. He was, as he has been in recent debates, the school master, taking the students to task. Seemingly, the student he “schooled” hardest was Paul. Taking the stage just before the Texas congressman, Gingrich completely stole some of Paul’s biggest thunder by astutely pointing out why it was a good idea to fire Ben Bernanke and to audit the Federal Reserve, and then explaining exactly how he was going to do it.
But it was Santorum who completely stole the show. I don’t know how the speaking order was determined, but it seemed almost divinely inspired that he would present his message last, and that his message would be such a resounding endorsement of the Christian evangelical political viewpoint. He was well rewarded for his speech, too. By the time the night was over, there was absolutely no doubt he had won. He fearlessly stole the stage for more than twice as long as any of the others, and he bore his soul and exposed his human frailty. He opened with a recap of all the times he defended the evangelical position in Congress, then talked about his personal salvation after attending a Bible study led by the venerable Lloyd John Ogilvie. Then, he personalized the life issue by talking about his son Gabriel, who had a fatal congenital birth defect and who died after a premature death brought on by complications following a surgery to correct the defect. The audience ate it up and seemed to want more, once the night was over.
The Final Analysis
Afterward, I sent a text message to a good friend who also had entered the evening uncommitted and asked simply, “Are you ready to endorse?” His response was one word: “Yip.” Checking in with several other uncommitted voters who watched the event on TV, I got similar replies from all of them.
Earlier this week, I spoke with a member of the Iowa House leadership about some upcoming campaign appearances Rick Santorum is scheduled to make in my neck of the woods—Southwest Iowa. He said he was amazed the Pennsylvanian hadn’t attracted more grassroots support:
“If you look at who the typical Iowa Republican Caucus attendee is, and what they generally are looking for in a candidate, you cannot find a more cookie-cutter match than Rick Santorum.”
After his speech last night, I know he certainly won me over. And, judging from the crowd that seemed to swell around him after the event was over, I’d be willing to assume there are a lot of people just like me out there.
Bob Eschliman is an Iowa journalist who has been covering politics and government for more than a decade. He is the founder of the Ben Franklin Journalism blog, which promotes citizen journalism.