- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 29, 2011

DES MOINES, Iowa — Amid all the questions about election strategy, immigration and China, one issue keeps popping up nearly any time a Republican candidate meets with voters in Iowa — how can spending be cut, and are you the candidate to do it?

“As a member of Congress, what have you done to reduce expenses and what is your timetable — if you’re elected president, what is your timetable for reducing the budget by a trillion dollars?” one man asked Rep. Ron Paul of Texas as he met with voters in Newton on Wednesday.

Four years ago, when voters poked candidates in the run-up to the caucuses, the ongoing war in Iraq was Topic A, and the panoply of social issues was also at the forefront. Now, while social issues remain on the list for many voters, the war questions have shifted to what to do about Iran, and concerns about spending dwarf all else.

In a sampling of questions from town halls from each of the candidates competing in Iowa, nearly a quarter of them dealt with spending, balanced budgets and limiting the reach of the federal government — everything from the depth of cuts, to a timetable, to what assurances could be given that candidates would actually follow through.

Next in line were questions about immigration and questions asking the candidates to stack themselves up against the rest of the field and particularly against former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, whose presence has shaped most of the race as conservatives wrestle with whether to support him or, if not, which alternative to back.

Some candidates draw specific questions just because of who they are. Mr. Paul regularly fields queries about whether he can actually see through his plans to curtail the Federal Reserve or to try to re-establish gold as everyday legal tender.

But candidates have to be ready to handle just about anything.

On Thursday, Newt Gingrich was asked whether he corrected then-Secretary of State Alexander Haig when he pronounced himself in charge in the wake of the assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan in 1981. The questioner mistakenly thought Mr. Gingrich was speaker of the House at the time, though in reality he didn’t assume that position until 1995.

Two weeks ago, Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota was confronted by a man in Sac City who wanted to know what she would do if a state wanted to secede.

She said she hadn’t heard that was an issue, but the man persisted anyway.

“I hope they don’t,” she replied. “I want to keep all 50 states.”

The man immediately walked out of the restaurant where she was holding her meeting.

Most interactions go better.

Jeanna Holmes, 48, a voter from Iowa City, asked Rick Santorum on Thursday to describe, without necessarily naming names, his closest personal friend, and his closest public friend, as a way of knowing the types of people he surrounded himself with.

The former senator from Pennsylvania told her it was a great question, and went on to talk about the chief of staff he kept for the 16 years he was in Congress, who is also godfather to one of his seven children. He said he wanted to be judged by the people he hired and how well they all worked together.

“I had staff turnover when I was in the Senate — probably less than most, far less than most — but it was all down pretty much at the lower levels because most of the people at the higher levels didn’t leave me,” he said.

Mrs. Holmes was impressed by the answer.

“I’m undecided, but he does make a very compelling case where I certainly moved a few degrees in his favor today,” she said afterward. “I have a week left, right, to decide? Decide on the future leader of the free world. No pressure.”

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