DES MOINES - GOP presidential hopefuls Haley Barbour, Newt Gingrich, Michele Bachmann, John Bolton and Herman Cain spoke on Saturday at an event organized by Rep. Steve King, a Republican from western Iowa.
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The day-long meeting for Iowa conservative activists and caucus-goers also included panel discussions on family values and repealing President Obama's health care law.
Barbour was scheduled to speak first, at 9 a.m. local/10 a.m. eastern. Gingrich was expected to speak about an hour later, and Bachmann around 1:30 p.m. local. King also hosted a dinner last night headlined by Sen. Jim DeMint, South Carolina Republican.
King said in an interview Friday night that his role at the meeting is to "facilitate" and not to play king maker, for the moment at least. He did acknowledge that he and Bachmann, a congresswoman from Minnesota, have a "tight friendship" and that she "will be able to compete in this state, along with Haley Barbour and everybody else that's in this line up."
"My plan is not secret. I want to promote the caucus, the debate. I want to help shape the planks and the platform of the next president of the United States," he said.
King said that criticism of social conservatives from Libertarian conservatives and others who say the GOP's focus should stay on economic issues is misplaced.
"I'm not having any problem with my party. I think we're--I wouldn't quite say universal, but it is a very strong, broad position that the full spectrum conservative stance is the right place to be. And that is the fiscal and social conservatism that comes in the same package," he said.
"And we trust here in this state that if you get the answers right to the issues of life, and marriage and culture and society, you understand those values and you understand the Constitution itself, then the rest of those decisions will come along and those folks will get the answer right."
The loudest, most sustained ovation all day here came not for Haley Barbour, Newt Gingrich, or even for Michele Bachmann. It came when Herman Cain, a black conservative Republican and life long businessman, threw a verbal grenade in the general direction of the Democratic party and American liberalism.
Cain, the former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza and radio talk show host, said he had been called a racist for criticizing President Obama.
“I get called a whole lot of other things as well for being conservative, because I won’t stay on the Democratic plantation like I’m supposed to just because the color of my skin. It ain’t about color,” he said.
The response from the crowd of several hundred conservatives – just about all of them white men and women – was a split second delayed. They stood and clapped, but after a moment the applause intensified, as Cain’s words sunk in.
Cain’s broadside was the most in-your-face moment of his fiery speech, which left the room abuzz more so than even Michele Bachmann’s remarks. “I don’t try to be politically correct. I just try to be correct,” he said at one point.
His candidacy is not taken seriously by party regulars, but Tea Party organizers in the crowd said Cain has been working hard to gain their support here in Iowa since the summer of 2009.
And his speech had lots of red meat for a Tea Party audience.
“We’ve got some altering and abolishing to do,” Cain said, referencing the Declaration of Independence. “The Founders got it right. It is within the power of the United States of America to alter stuff that we don’t like. We don’t like this radical socialism that’s being shoved down our throats.”
Talking to reporters afterwards, Cain also said he thinks the imposition of Islamic Sharia law is a legitimate threat in America and that he would not appoint any Muslims to any positions in his Cabinet if he were elected.
“I will not. And here’s why. There is this creeping attempt, this attempt, to gradually ease Sharia law and the Muslim faith into our government,” Cain said. “It does not belong in our government. This is what happened to Europe. And little by little, to try to be politically correct, they made this little change. They made this little change. And now they’ve got a social problem that they don’t know what to do with hardly.”
Cain cited the 2009 case of domestic abuse in New Jersey, where a local judge decided not to grant a woman’s restraining order request against her Muslim husband based on the fact that he said his religious beliefs allowed him to have sex with her whenever he wanted. The state’s appellate court overturned the decision in 2010, stating that the man’s religious beliefs could not justify abuse.
He also cited a federal judge’s decision last fall to block a ballot measure that was approved in Oklahoma that would have forbidden state courts from considering sharia law or international law in deciding cases.
“I get upset when the Muslims in this country, some of them, try to force their sharia law onto the rest of us,” Cain said.
Michelle Bachmann swept in to the downtown Des Moines Marriott just after lunch today, delivering a high-octane speech criticizing President Obama and big government “arrogance” in Washington.
“I want a waiver for the last two years of president Obama,” she said, referencing the practice of giving waivers to business exempting them from the president’s health care law. “Are you with me?”
Iowans packed the hotel ballroom to hear the Minnesota Republican congresswoman, and cheered her populist message heartily. Her emergence this week as a significant factor in the GOP primary lent a buzz to the moment.
In contrast to Haley Barbour’s homespun demeanor and Newt Gingrich’s professorial presentation, Bachmann spoke in all caps for much of her remarks and barely stopped to take a breath.
She ran through Obama's policies, calling them wrong-minded and ineffective. She criticized his stimulus bill, his health care bill, his tax policy, and his energy policy. She pegged her talking points to specific numbers, showing slides with a big white number on a all black background on screens on both sides of her.
She showed a slide that said, “3.8 million." That was “approximately the number of words in the tax code.”
“Happy reading!” she chirped with a smile.
She also touted her introduction of a law to revoke the government's regulation of light bulbs, boasting: “I introduced the light bulb freedom of choice act!” The crowd roared at that one.
Bachmann did not mention that the light bulb law was signed into law by former President Bush.
Bachmann spent little time on the issue of moral values, but showed a deft touch in her handling of the issue.
After railing for most of her remarks against big government meddling in people’s lives and hurting economic growth, Bachmann said that “it is families that are the solution and the ultimate building block for America.”
“Because no stimulus, no entitlement reform, no health care initiative, no education revamp can match the power of an intact two-parent family in driving economic growth, health and well being in the United States,” she said.
Bachmann noted that her parents divorced and said she understands “the difficulties that single parent families have. This is not to denigrate them in any way.”
She did not get into many specifics detailing how she would counter Obama’s policies, sticking to general principles. Bachmann was at her most populist near the end of her speech.
“The preservation of our nation is too important to entrust it to mere politicians,” she said. “The founders recognized that it could only be entrusted to the brain trust, and that’s the people of this nation.”
But Bachmann’s position on the role of religion in politics was somewhat contradictory. She sent positive and negative signals about whether religion is required for the nation to be moral.
The Founders, she said, “understood it was our values that were the underpinning of this nation. John Adams wrote, it is only for a moral and religious nation, this constitution that we write, it is wholly unsuited for any other.”
But then Bachmann said that Adams’ quote was “not saying what kind of religion a person has to have, or if they have to be religious at all. What it is saying is that we cannot build a nation unless it is built upon a rock solid foundation. And America has that. It is the character and the values of our people.”
That statement would appear to be at odds with the belief expressed by many, including former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, that faith in God of some sort is needed for a nation to retain its “character and values.”
Bachmann left after her speech without answering questions from reporters.
Newt Gingrich hosted a screening Friday night here in Des Moines of a movie he and his wife Callista made with conservative filmmaker David Bossie called "Rediscovering God in America." I watched the couple make brief remarks to introduce it, and then grabbed his book of the same name and read the introduction.
The point of the book, and of the movie, is that America has been since its founding a religious nation with a national identity that recognizes faith in God as a cornerstone of its culture and its government.
Some would say this means the U.S. is a "Christian nation." Gingrich's book stops short of that, and instead makes the case that America has been and should be a pluralistic nation that allows freedom of religion for most faiths (more on why not all faiths below).
“For the Founders, it was abundantly clear. Religious liberty and freedom of religious expression would be indispensable supports for our democratic traditions of government and our pluralistic society. And so they have, for over two hundred years. It is important to recognize that the benefits of these supports accrue to people of not just one particular faith, but those of all faiths,” Gingrich writes.
Of the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, Gingrich says “the phrase transcends any one faith or denomination and is inclusive.”
But there are some limits to religious freedom, he argues. A free country requires that its people be virtuous, and virtue is produced by what Gingrich calls “true religion.”
“True religion” is defined in his book as “any religion that cultivates the virtues necessary to the protection of liberty.”
“Implicit within this vision of the Founding Fathers is a pluralistic sensibility,” he writes.
I asked Gingrich after his speech today whether Islam fit the definition of “true religion” as he defines it in his book. His answer was very short, and a bit inconclusive.
“I think it’s a monotheism,” he said.
“So it does?” I asked.
He responded: “The point is the Founding Fathers believed that having a belief in God – this is a very wide range if you read what they say – is where they believe our rights come from.”
Another reporter asked whether some in the GOP were going too far in criticizing Islam and its connection to international terrorism.
“I think that you can be anti-radical Islamist without being anti-Islam,” Gingrich said.
Here is a trailer for the "Rediscovering God" film:
GOP presidential hopeful Haley Barbour said in the first speech of today's event that Republicans should not "lose focus" on economic issues.
"The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing," he said.
It didn't take long for the comment to draw criticism from other speakers.
After fellow presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich implicitly pushed back on the importance of social issues, an official with the Family Research Council mentioned Barbour directly.
"Maybe that makes sense in Mississippi," Connie Mackey, president of FRCAction PAC, said of Barbour's "main thing" comment.
"I assume he’s talking about the economy, and we would certainly agree that the economy is in a very dire situation right now, and it is foremost," Mackey said.
"However, the culture cannot be subtracted from that. It’s a complicated issue and what happens in our culture affects the economy, and everything around it," she continued. "So to say, as some presidential hopefuls have said, that we should call a truce on social issues, we say not at all. It’s all of a piece."
The crowd applauded.
Other speakers on the following panel on "Family Values" also mentioned the truce debate, and urged Iowans to push candidates to stand up for traditional marriage and against abortion.
Barbour campaign officials are pointing out that the Mississippi governor gave a speech to pastors in West Des Moines yesterday that focused on the importance of religion and social values (video here).
"We’re doing everything that we can to stop abortion in our state,” Barbour said Friday, according to Politico. “And if I get elected president, I will come into office with that attitude. And that’s about 180 degrees different from the current president.”
In that speech, Barbour also said that the civil rights movement was fueled in large part by religion, as one example of why religion should not be pushed out of politics.
“A lot of people on the left would try to convince you that this is about freedom from religion. That the founding documents, that the separation of church in state, would drive religious people out of the public square. Their idea of the First Amendment is to drive out conservative religious people," Barbour told the pastors.
Here is video of Barbour's speech:
Newt Gingrich continued to defend himself against criticism that he has flip-flopped on how the U.S. should proceed in Libya.
Gingrich said March 7 that the U.S. should impose a no-fly zone over Libya, but then on March 23 criticized President Obama for signing on to the United Nations resolution that imposed a no-fly zone.
In his speech here to a few hundred Iowans, Gingrich brought the issue up unprompted.
"On each day that I was on television I was responding to where the president was that day. So obviously there were contradictions," Gingrich said. "I was trying to follow Obama."
Gingrich used an anecdote to try to explain himself.
"If you had asked me, ‘Should we jump in the lake?’ I would have said no. Once we jumped in the lake I said swim as fast as we can. It’s not a contradiction between saying, ‘Let’s stay dry. Swim as fast as you can,’ if the intervening moment is you’re in the lake," he said.
"The president on March 3 said [Dictator Muammar] Gaddafi has to go. At that point he pitted the prestige and power of the United States aginst a dictator who has been anti-American for over 40 years," Gingrich said.
Gingrich's point appears to be that if he had been asked before March 3 whether the U.S. should get involved in Libya he would have said no. But when Obama said Gaddafi had to go, his analysis changed to one that required quick, decisive and overwhelming military force to make that happen.
But his explanations have been anything but clear, and this one is no different. And it is not clear how Obama has changed positions. Conservatives have criticized him for waiting too long to act, but that is a different thing than shifting around.
Gingrich summed up his current position this way.
"Now, I believe the only rational objective of the current intervention is to defeat Gaddafi as rapidly as possible. I would do it by using Egyptian, Moroccan, Jordanian and Iraqi armed forces as advisers … with the rebels, using all the Western air power as decisively as possible."
Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour led off the event, and went straight at the issue of whether the GOP should be talking about social issues or economic issues.
Republicans, Barbour told the packed ballroom, need to "make sure that like the 2010 campaign, the 2012 campaign is focused on policy, focused on the policies of this administration."
Barbour's speech was a litany of how President Obama is wrong on spending and budgets, health care, energy, and the size and role of government.
"We can't lose focus on that," Barbour said.
The likely 2012 primary candidate did not take questions from reporters after his speech. But his comments were a clear answer to questions still percolating within the GOP about whether there should be a "truce" on social issues in the party, to broaden its appeal to those who might be economic conservatives and socially liberal or libertarian.
The truce phrase was first uttered by Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, and has since set off an intense debate inside the GOP.
The country's founders, Barbour said, were "seeking religious freedom, many of them, yes."
"But they also knew what Ronald Reagan knew, that religious freedom, political freedom, are totally intertwined with economic freedom, the power to make our own decisions, to have a country where anybody can make the most of their God-given talents or hard work," he said.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich spoke soon after Barbour, and had a different take on the issue.
"If you don't start with values and if you don’t start with establishing who we are as Americans, the rest of it doesn’t matter," he said.
Gingrich peppered his speech with references to the need to protect and preserve moral values, and said one of his first executive orders as president would be to stop sending money to foreign countries that in any way paid for abortions.
Update - Barbour campaign officials are pointing to his speech here in Iowa yesterday, where he spoke out in favor of religion in politics and said he is working to "stop abortion." More details on that here.