By Barry Casselman
DES MOINES – Five of the well-known candidates for the Republican nomination for president of the United States spoke at the annual Reagan dinner here in the capital of Iowa on Friday, November 4.
Less than two months from now, Iowans will cast the first actual votes in the 2012 campaign cycle. This promises to be one of the more important Iowa caucuses since 1976, when Iowans played an important role in the ultimate election of Jimmy Carter.
GOP frontrunners Mitt Romney and Herman Cain did not attend the
dinner; they were speaking at another event in Washington, DC. Jon
Huntsman also was not in Iowa.
Before the dinner, I took a tour of several campaign headquarters in
the Des Moines area. Those of Herman Cain, Michelle Bachmann and
Rick Perry were in the relative early stages. Bumper stickers and campaign brochures abounded, but as I discovered at the Iowa Straw Poll in nearby Ames a few months before, campaign buttons, formerly a political staple here and in other states, are in short supply this year.
All of the candidates had tables at the Hy-Vee Arena where the dinner
was held, and the crowd of Iowa Republicans paid $75 for the meal and the opportunity to meet candidates and shake hands.
It was my first chance to meet Texas Governor Rick Perry, who not surprisingly turned out to be especially charming and engaged with all who came to
meet him. Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, too, was friendly and all smiles as a crowd, waiting to enter the hall, gathered around him. Michelle Bachmann, Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich entered the Arena just before the dinner began, so attendees had to wait until the event was over to meet with them at book signings and hospitality suites.
Most of the speeches were pedestrian, especially in light of the late stage of the
campaign. One speech stood out, however, that of Newt Gingrich, and once the program began, it was clearly his night. It should come as no surprise, in light of how well he has performed (by general agreement) in candidate debates so far, and in his sudden and steady rise in the polls from lower single digits, to noticeable double digits (and usually in third place behind Romney and Cain);
Gingrich brought many to their feet in the Arena as he closed his remarks by
repeating his challenge to President Obama, should Gingrich be the GOP
nominee, for a series of three-hour Lincoln-Douglas styled debates in
September and October with a timekeeper but no moderator. Although he
has mentioned this before, Gingrich added in Des Moines that if Mr. Obama
declines to debate with him, he would do what Abraham Lincon did in 1858
to persuade the reluctant and far-better known Stephen Douglas to agree to
the debates. As historian Gingrich pointed out, Lincoln, rebuffed by Douglas, then followed the senator around the state of Illinois where Douglas was making campaign speeches, and after each Douglas speech, he would refute them before local reporters. When Douglas realized that Lincoln was getting all the coverage, he finally agreed to the debates.
“If President Obama does not agree to debate with me if I am the Republican nominee, I would then use the White House schedule as my schedule and speak after him wherever he goes.”
In contrast to critical comments by most of the candidates against each other in recent debates and campaign ads, Gingrich devoted the first part of his remarks to praising the other candidates by name and singling out what Gingrich felt was their best contributions to the campaign so far. Left out of the evening were the recent sharp confrontations between Mr. Romney and Mr. Perry, and the current hubbub over allegations of harassment by Mr. Cain. In regard to the latter, wherever I went in Des Moines, I found no evidence that the charges against Mr. Cain were hurting him thus far with Republican voters.
Although Mr. Romney does not have a campaign office yet in Iowa, he did have staffers at the dinner. I was assured by them that Mr. Romney would be making a full effort in the next two months here.
In fact, although Mr. Romney is not leading in latest Iowa polls, his numbers are strong. Most observers think that if he does win Iowa, followed by New Hampshire where he is far ahead, the race for the nomination could be over much sooner than anyone expected only weeks before this.
A final note about Mr. Gingrich’s prospects. He is still a very long shot to win
the nomination, although he probably will be the last candidate to challenge
the former Massachusetts governor seriously before the convention. As Mr.
Gingrich returns to prominence in the GOP campaign, there is little doubt that
the media forces which launched the current imbroglio over Herman Cain will turn their attention once again to Newt Gingrich. How he handles this likely assault will probably have much to do with whether his current surge in popularity is just a “bubble” or something more sustainable. In the past, he has been thin-skinned and careless in response to the “smears” against him, however unfair or wrong, but this time, with so much at stake, and with Mr. Cain’s poor responses as a fresh example of what not to do, he will need all the skill and self-discipline he can muster to be competitive in Tampa, and possibly, beyond.
Barry Casselman has been writing about national politics since 1972. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.