By Mike Glover
Tuesday, March 8, 2011; A04
WAUKEE, IOWA - Several Republicans considering 2012 presidential bids came to Iowa on Monday night to test their strength among social conservatives who hold the key to the state's leadoff caucuses.
Five of the potential candidates took the stage at a church in this Des Moines suburb, hoping to set themselves apart in a forum hosted by the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition.
"I do believe we have an extraordinarily fundamental choice to make in this election," said former House speaker Newt Gingrich, one of those who participated. "We are at a crossroads that we cannot hide from: What kind of country do we want to leave to our children and grandchildren?"
Also taking part in the forum were former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, businessman Herman Cain, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum and former Louisiana governor Buddy Roemer.
The men were sharing a stage for the first time as they made their case before hundreds of activists starting to look at potential contenders for the 2012 election cycle. All five said that they can be best trusted to follow the conservative path, and they went out of their way to talk about religion in a state where social and religious conservatives play a heavy role in GOP politics.
"The American dream is under attack, that's the bad news," Cain said. "The good news is we are on the attack. We have got to lead this nation from an entitlement society to an empowerment society. We must defend those principles this nation was founded on."
Cain said he had no plans to run for president, but "was compelled" because the nation was on the wrong track.
Meanwhile, Gingrich said he was "in the process of exploring" a presidential bid. "We're all going to have to be on the same team after this is over," he said.
Roemer got some of the loudest response with his folksy speech. "I'm the only person thinking about running for president who has been elected as a senator and a governor," he said.
Pawlenty quoted heavily from the Bible. "We need to be a nation that turns toward God, not one that turns away from God," he said. "Our freedom comes from our creator."
Santorum praised the Faith and Freedom Coalition, calling it "a group that means a lot to me."
"This is a group that I've been attached to at the hip for long, long years," he said, and he urged a tighter focus on social issues. "America has to be about shared values or what is it. Once you stick your head out on moral issues, you're labeled."
Steve Scheffler, head of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, said the event was just the beginning of the 2012 caucus campaign and few would be making quick commitments on candidates.
"No one is going to make up their mind after tonight," Scheffler said. "Most of them are coming from pretty similar positions." Activists likely are looking for a candidate who they think will actually carry out campaign promises after elected, he said.
"We're looking for somebody with some backbone, who has a little iron in his spine," Scheffler said.
Earlier Monday, Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.), who sought the GOP nomination in 2008, spoke at three events in Iowa.
"The role of government is to protect liberty," Paul said. "Put the responsibility at the local level, not in the king in Washington who has gone astray."
The events were sponsored by the Family Leader, a high-profile social conservative group that is inviting potential Republican presidential candidates to address family issues. In coming weeks, the group will host Santorum and Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) in coming weeks.
"We have accepted the reality that government will provide for us," Paul said. "Today we are at a point where the family has been under pressure."
- Associated Press