- The Washington Times - Monday, March 7, 2011

The 2012 presidential derby began in earnest Monday night, with five would-be Republican standard-bearers vying for support from influential social conservatives in Waukee, Iowa — 11 months before the state’s first-in-the-nation caucuses.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, former Godfather’s Pizza Chief Executive Herman Cain and former Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer spoke to the crowd at the Faith & Freedom Coalition’s Spring Kickoff, a gathering of religious and socially conservative Iowans at Point of Grace Church.

In his remarks, Mr. Gingrich said, “Balancing the budget is essentially a moral question about whether or not politicians have to abide by the same rules everyone else does.”

He drew cheers after urging the crowd to send a message in the 2012 elections that “power does not start in Washington with a bunch of judges and bureaucrats dictating down to you.”

None of the five formally has announced a candidacy, but the conference is considered the start to a nominating process that culminates in February’s Iowa caucuses.

Until then, the crowded field of GOP hopefuls will crisscross the state, shaking hands, eating chicken dinners and practicing the kind of retail politicking the state’s voters have come to expect.

Mr. Cain, for example, has nine separate breakfasts, receptions, meet-and-greets and speeches scheduled in the state through Thursday.

The 65-year-old Atlanta businessman is considered a long shot for the nomination, but after multiple trips to Iowa, he is starting to build a base of support — especially among tea party activists.

“He’s creating quite a buzz,” former Iowa Republican Party Chairman Richard Schwarm told the Associated Press. “He is someone Iowa caucus-goers are going to take very seriously.”

At the forum Monday night, Mr. Cain was warmly welcomed by the Iowa conservatives.

The part-time radio talk-show host was comfortable in front of the crowd, drawing cheers when he said his interest in running for the presidency was based on a desire to ensure a stronger and more vibrant America for his grandchildren.

“I’ve got a message for the liberals,” he said. “This is the United States of America, not the United States of Europe.”

Support from socially conservative groups, such as the Faith & Freedom Coalition, helped former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee notch a surprising win in the 2008 GOP caucuses, and the five contenders on hand Monday are looking to replicate that formula.

Other potential candidates, such as former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, were not on hand for Monday night’s gathering, but each has been making the rounds in the state.

Texas Rep. Ron Paul, who is considering his own run for the GOP nomination, also skipped Monday’s forum, but he is in the midst of a multi-stop speaking tour of the state.

Another possible contender, real estate magnate Donald Trump, was a no-show, but an aide, Michael Cohen, created a stir anyway when he arrived unexpectedly in Des Moines aboard the billionaire’s personal jet — emblazoned with the word “Trump” on the side — to meet with an array of party officials.

Mr. Cohen said he hadn’t been sent by Mr. Trump, but that he was in the state to gauge interest in a Trump candidacy.

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