While not at the level of California or Texas, the Republican Party of Iowa has shown over the years that they know a little bit about about fundraising for their candidates. This year is no different. So it was not surprising that the Iowa GOP's foremost fundraiser, the Ronald Reagan Dinner in Des Moines, was well attended by five 2012 presidential candidates and over 1000 well-heeled party loyalists.
Americans are reported to spend $40 million on their dogs each year, so it's also no surprise that millions of people tune in to watch the renowned Westminster Dog Show.
A dog show: arguably the best way to describe the Ronald Reagan Dinner. An annual affair that allows supporters willing to pay $75 a ticket to meet, greet, and fawn over their favorite Republican candidates. And with an uncharacteristically large field still shuffling for supremacy among the GOP base, there was a lot of petting and fawning going on at Hy-Vee Hall last Friday.
It's a black tie gathering allowing friends who live and breathe retail politics to take a night off from real political discourse.
And that's the problem.
Republican Party of Iowa Chairman Matt Strawn kicked off the portion of the evening. He spoke about what he considers the failure of the Obama administration and the importance of party unity as the January 3 Iowa Caucus and 2012 general election approach.
"Sixty days from right now, we start the process of choosing Barack Obama's Republican successor and it starts here in Iowa," said Strawn. "Sixty days, folks; 60 days," he said. "Every minute counts."
Interestingly, by many accounts, Iowa has seen far fewer Republican White House hopefuls passing through this year, in comparison to years past. And if you are a Democratic operative or staffer looking for work, good luck. President Obama has been spotted in Iowa even less than Mitt Romney. President Obama's last trip to Iowa was August 14 for an economic forum in Davenport. Candidate Obama's last trip was even further back.
Most of the eight Republican presidential candidates invited accepted the invitation; the most notable absences were Mitt Romney and Herman Cain, who were in Washington on Friday to give speeches at an event sponsored by Americans for Prosperity, a Tea Party-aligned, fiscally conservative group.
This year's dinner, which drew a good crowd ranging from long-time conservative donors to college Republican groups, breezed through its 75-minute itinerary, pausing only to show brief campaign videos between speakers.
For people who have watched the numerous televised GOP debates this season, the 10 minutes each contender was afforded to speak probably felt like deja vu. To be fair, a 10 minute speech is no place to unveil new policy or cut down a fellow candidate. There was not a single mention of the scandal that has recently enveloped the Cain campaign and only passing comments regarding the differences between candidates' respective economic improvement strategies.
Republican candidates took the stage, one after another. In order, the speaker list included: U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas; U.S.; Texas Gov. Rick Perry; U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota; Former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich; and Former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania;
Congressman Paul reaffirmed his commitment to auditing the Federal Reserve and said that there should be no income tax, adding, "A national sales tax would be a disaster."
"With unlimited spending, you get unlimited debt," said Paul. He also vowed to cut a trillion dollars from the budget in his first year in office.
Governor Perry made what could be considered the first joke of the evening, when he said that this event was the start of "Operation: Occupy the White House," a mocking reference to the current Occupy Wall Street movement.
"All of the candidates in attendance would be better than what we have right now," he asserted, opining that Washington D.C currently lacks leadership and courage.
"I'll show the courage to reform entitlements," he said, referring to Social Security.
Perry also he would help Washington "kick the earmark habit for good," and pledged to "stop the gravy for beltway lobbyists."
Michele Bachman, who has consistently positioned herself as one of the loudest critics of Obama on spending and one of the party's strongest voices on social issues, compared the national debt crisis to a canoe approaching Niagara Falls. Referencing the recent European bailout of Greece and the gravity of the debt crisis in the United States, she said, "What we need in a nominee is someone who is willing to stand up and say, 'No More'."
Rick Santorum, who earlier in the day launched his "Faith, Family and Freedom Tour," reminded audience members of the importance of social issues.
"We're not just about cutting taxes," he said. "We're also about families."
Ironically, Santorum then went on to pledge that, as president, he would cut corporate tax rates to zero, and stressed the need to "send a message on day one that all businesses are welcome in America to help grow our economy."
Newt Gingrich followed Santorum, and spent the first few moments of his speech lauding his opponents, as he has done during many of the debates, before highlighting specific parts of his 21st Century Contract with America.
Gingrich credited Ron Paul for his insistence that the Federal Reserve be audited, and celebrated Bachmann for her work to repeal the Dodd-Frank Bill, a favorite Gingrich target. He called Rick Perry his "mentor on the 10th Amendment" and recognized Santorum for his efforts to maintain a nuclear-weapon-free Iran.
This tactic has endeared Gingrich to many Republicans who wish to see a united party no matter who it ultimately selects as its nominee.
Many at the Reagan Dinner were in agreement, and said that Gingrich was their favorite speaker of the night.
The other highlight of Gingrich's speech was his oft-repeated promise to - if nominated - invite President Obama to participate in seven three-hour Lincoln-Douglass style debates. As he has quipped at countless town halls, Gingrich pledges to have no moderator, but jokes that he is willing to let the president use a teleprompter.
The pledge might have been the most memorable moment of the night.
"I want to see that debate," said Mari Ann Wearda, 66, who lives on a farm near Hampton, IA.
Wearda said it was the first time she had heard or seen Gingrich in person, but said she was very impressed and prefers Gingrich primarily because of his experience.
"It's one of the things that bothers me about Cain," she said. "It's not because of what's happened lately," she added, referring to the sexual harassment allegations against Cain.
While many people will remember this event for who wasn't there, others may remember it for what wasn't said.
The Reagan Dinner offered a chance for candidates to make an impassioned speech in front of the team in the locker room before the big game. This was homecoming and these candidates treated it like spring ball. Not a single member of the field seemed to recognize that they are still battling each other, and not just the president.
With the exception of a few retreads of campaign trail tested jokes and jabs, mostly directed at President Obama, each one simply struck a pose, confident that they would walk off with the prize, as those precious minutes ticked by.