GOP Contenders Flock to Iowa

Mitt Romney gives his autograph to Yvonne Stockseth of Humboldt, Iowa, at the Lincoln Day Dinner.
Mitt Romney gives his autograph to Yvonne Stockseth of Humboldt, Iowa, at the Lincoln Day Dinner. (Charlie Neibergall - AP)
By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 15, 2007

DES MOINES, April 14 -- What would Abraham Lincoln have thought of the man in a rabbit suit wearing a sign that said, "Varmints Against Mitt"?

It was the annual Lincoln Day Dinner here in Iowa, and the show was back in town. Varmint Man greeted Republican activists as the party's major presidential candidates showed up to speak from the same lectern for the first time.

Most of them had similar messages -- they would be tough on terrorism, they would fight defeatist Democrats, they would keep taxes low, they would tackle illegal immigration. Many rushed to extol Ronald Reagan while barely mentioning President Bush. They kept reassuring each other that it is good to be Republican despite recent polls and political travails.

But with nine of them trying to distinguish themselves from the pack here in this season's opening GOP presidential cattle call, the candidates looked for small ways and large to attract attention.

Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, who has been mocked for boasting that he has hunted "varmints" all his life, brought his wife and son on stage to demonstrate his family values; he spoke after former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, married three times and estranged from his son.

Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback tried to create a sense of momentum by walking around with a posse of 20 supporters shouting, "We Back Brownback," over and over. Arizona Sen. John McCain, short of cash compared to his main rivals, papered the convention center with hand-painted signs to supplement pre-printed placards. Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee brought a Bill Clinton impersonator on stage to make jokes about womanizing and Hillary Rodham Clinton, then threw a reception where his band, Capitol Offense, performed.

"People ask why am I running for president," Huckabee joked. "Well, my band didn't make it on 'American Idol.' "

And so it went. To the extent that the candidates differed on substance, the field divided into two camps. Two front-runners who spoke first, Giuliani and Romney, stuck to unifying themes of national security and conservative economics. Those lagging behind in the polls, such as Huckabee and Brownback, echoed those themes but also raised social issues ignored by the leaders, particularly abortion and same-sex marriage.

"We're pro-life and proud of it," Brownback told his trailing band of shouting supporters. Former Virginia governor James S. Gilmore III mocked the top-tier candidates as inconsistent. "Rudy McRomney is not a conservative," he said, in the most direct shot of the evening.

By the time McCain got up to speak last, he opened by citing his long-standing opposition to abortion "without changing, without wavering" before moving into his stump speech on the need to stay in Iraq. Asked afterward why he led with his abortion stance, McCain said, "So that everyone would know that for sure." But when asked what he would do about abortion as president, he said he "would try to help change the culture in America." So no legislation? "No," he said.

Also speaking were former Wisconsin governor Tommy G. Thompson, Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo and Illinois party activist John Cox. California Rep. Duncan Hunter missed the dinner because of airplane trouble. The crowd of 1,000 responded politely to the speeches but only occasionally was roused to enthusiastic applause.

A poll by Strategic Vision, a firm that surveys for Republicans, found Giuliani leading the field in Iowa with 25 percent of likely caucus participants, trailed by McCain with 20 percent. Fred D. Thompson, the actor and former Tennessee senator who may run, placed third with 11 percent, followed by Romney at 8 percent.

Even among GOP faithful, though, the poll found disenchantment with Bush. Among likely caucus-goers, 77 percent said they do not see Bush as a "conservative Republican in the mode of Ronald Reagan." And 52 percent favored pulling all U.S. troops out of Iraq within six months.

More than most of the speakers, Giuliani and McCain challenged that sentiment, arguing that Iraq was too critical to give up on. "Never again are we going to be on defense against terrorists," Giuliani said. "Retreat, surrender, schedules of retreat, cutting back on the Patriot Act, cutting back on electronic surveillance, cutting back on interrogation, that's all defense."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company