Rep. Steve King has summoned the potential field of 2016 Republican presidential candidates to Iowa next month for his Freedom Summit, and they are jumping at the opportunity — underscoring the conservative firebrand’s political pull and marking the event as the first major gathering of the next campaign for the White House.
Mr. King told The Washington Times that the Jan. 24 gathering in Des Moines will give the kinds of activists who turn out for Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses a look at their options and will give the candidates an early reality check.
“It is a very, very good way to get a first look at the potential candidates,” Mr. King said. “It is part of their decision-making process too. If you walk up before a crowd and the crowd is electrified, so are you. If they are yawning through your speech, maybe you have some work to do.”
The summit is also a marker of Mr. King’s growing voice within the Republican Party, where his strong rhetoric on issues such as immigration and same-sex marriage is loved by some and loathed by others.
Mr. King has raised the possibility of impeaching President Obama, saying it should be on the table as an option. He also hammered the Democrat for embracing policies that Mr. King believes are unconstitutional and have made the nation weaker at home and on the international stage.
“I think in Iowa, Steve King is kind of the conservative conscience,” said Craig Robinson, a former GOP operative who now runs the Iowa Republican website. “I wouldn’t say he is their spokesperson, but he is the one they look towards as the guy who is going to go out there and plant the flag.”
Mr. King’s influence in the primary race is outsized because of his position in Iowa, Iowa’s position in the primary calendar and the way Iowa doles out its delegates to the Republican nominating convention.
The caucuses draw only the most committed of activists, who must show up on a usually frigid January night at a set time to talk and vote.
Mr. Robinson said those were “the true believers who are caucusing,” and they are the ones most likely to look to Mr. King for guidance.
That could be particularly valuable this year, with a sprawling potential Republican field. More than a dozen hopefuls plan to be in Des Moines for the summit, including former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and, perhaps most noteworthy, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who recently announced the formation of a presidential exploratory committee, has been invited.
Some Republicans say candidates should be wary of trying too hard to get Mr. King’s backing.
“The endorsement is a double-edged sword,” said John Feehery, a Republican Party strategist. “I think it comes with a lot more barnacles than it is worth.”
Mr. King has earned a reputation as a hard-liner on immigration. He led this summer’s fight to try to halt Mr. Obama’s 2012 policy granting tentative legal status to Dreamers, or young adult illegal immigrants, and was part of a rebellion against congressional Republican leaders’ spending bill this month, arguing that it didn’t do enough to stop the president’s amnesty for illegal immigrants.
Some Republican strategists say taking positions like that, while popular among the party’s base, would handicap a presidential nominee in November, especially among the burgeoning Hispanic population.
Being “in a position on the immigration issue to get the endorsement” of Mr. King would make it “impossible to get elected in the general election,” Mr. Feehery said.
Mr. King shrugs off the criticism that cast him as beyond the bounds of prudent politics. “The people in Iowa know me and they don’t say that,” he said.
The list of potential candidates who have traveled to Iowa to meet with him include Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, Mr. Christie and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.
Mr. Santorum, who won the Iowa caucuses in 2012, also has made appearances with Mr. King, whom he showers with praise.
Though Mr. Santorum achieved victory without Mr. King’s endorsement, he told The Times that he is confident he would have won the caucuses by a wider margin if he had received that backing.
Mr. King did not endorse anyone in the topsy-turvy 2012 contest in Iowa, and Mr. Santorum surmised he probably remained neutral because of his close friendship with Rep. Michele Bachmann, Minnesota Republican.
This time, Mr. Santorum said, Mr. King’s support could be gold.
“Knowing the kind of field that is out there right now, and knowing how close races in Iowa can be, he could take someone who is not in the race and put them in the race, or take someone who is in the race and put them on the top,” Mr. Santorum said. “Steve is a strong, strong asset, and you have to remember, the most Republican areas of the state are the areas that Steve represents.”
Democrats, meanwhile, are giddy about the prospect of Mr. King playing a central role in the Republican presidential nomination process.
“You could not have a more polarizing figure in the Republican Party today ,” said Jessica Vanden Berg, a Democratic strategist based in Iowa.
“Any moderate Republican who is running who could appeal in a general election will have to answer for all the comments that Steve King has made in the past. And answer whether they agree or disagree.”