About a thousand conservatives filled the hall Saturday at the state fairgrounds for the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition candidate forum. In some states, this largely evangelical crowd would be political outsiders. In Iowa, religious conservatives have been the most influential element of the Republican Party since the late 1980s. Some Tea Party activists and Ron Paul supporters were also in attendance — the Paul supporters pointedly refusing to applaud when support for Israel was mentioned.
All the candidates were in attendance except Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman; a Romney Iowa operative told me his candidate has no interest in attending “cattle calls.” The other steer seemed happy for the opportunity.
The drama of the evening concerned Herman Cain, riding high but precariously on his wave. Cain’s recent statements on the legal status of abortion have been both emphatic and self-contradictory. Mike Huckabee — still a hero to Iowa religious conservatives — has called Cain’s comments “very pro-choice.” At the forum, Cain felt no need to confront his pro-life problem directly, beyond saying he wanted “no abortions, no exceptions.” His remarks, for the most part, were not political at all. He gave a motivational speech — more Tony Robbins than presidential candidate. Americans should “stay informed,” “stay involved,” “stay inspired” and “lighten up.”
The other candidates took some shots at Cain’s recent abortion statements. Rick Perry, in a well-crafted speech, referred to Cain’s position as “pro-having-your-cake-and-eating-it-too.” But the attacks were heavily veiled. No one took on Cain by name. Even Rick Santorum, who has make pro-life issues central to his campaign, was silent about Cain’s recent comments.
In a debate, things might have been different. The other candidates might have piled on. But time is getting short for some of the candidates — now 10 weeks, including three national holidays, until the Iowa caucuses. Why did they generally hold their fire concerning the Cain gaffe?
Some of the challenge for the other candidates may be that Cain is so darn likable. His remarks at the forum were almost policy-free. But they had a good spirit — upbeat and patriotic, managing to praise both the civil rights movement and Ronald Reagan. (Michele Bachmann, in contrast, attacked the provision of benefits to “illegal aliens and their children” — going out of her way to repeatedly target “children” at a Christian forum.) A direct attack on Cain might have risked boos and hisses.
But the other candidates may also be calculating that Cain’s support will inevitably decline without their help — especially since he has been gaffe-prone on a number of issues, domestic and international. The message of Cain’s unpreparedness may be carried by the media and by figures such as Huckabee. Operatives of the other campaigns believe Cain is weak on the ground in Iowa, with little campaign structure, and think he has peaked too early. Cain’s reception at the Iowa forum was good, but not particularly enthusiastic (by that measure, Newt Gingrich won the night). And it is odd that Cain did not mix with the influential crowd as the other candidates did — perhaps avoiding awkward abortion questions.
But Republican candidates are taking a risk if they assume Cain is not a serious force in Iowa. People will forgive some flaws in someone they like.