For the last several months, the likes of Jeb Bush, Mitt Romney, Ted Cruz and Rand Paul have dominated the media coverage of the still-nascent contest for the White House.
But when the 2016 Republican presidential race roared to life this weekend with twin events in Iowa and Louisiana, two lesser-known contestants left indelible impressions on the GOP faithful.
Former Hewlett-Packard chief executive and current American Conservative Union Foundation Chairwoman Carly Fiorina and battle-tested Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker left the crowds stirring after a nonstop ten-hour festival in Des Moines that exposed voters to 27 speakers and at least 10 GOP presidential hopefuls.
“Carly Fiorina, whom most people had never heard of, got the best response. She came across as a highly intelligent woman and a strong leader as the ex-chief executive of the biggest tech firm in the world,” said former Oklahoma GOP Chairman Gary Jones, who flew from his home state to the Iowa event. “She did herself the most good.”
Mr. Walker, who has won two election battles in the swing state of Wisconsin since taking on public unions, also did plenty to dispel perceptions he was an under-stated speaker lacking in charisma.
“Scott Walker was the other one who most improved his position, walking from one end of the stage to the other, with sleeves rolled up and no teleprompter, talking substance — what he would actually do as president,” Mr. Jones added. “We had heard he can be a lackluster speaker. He wasn’t.”
West Des Moines caucus chairman Richard Rogers agreed: “Walker and Fiorina helped themselves most.”
Beyond the candidates’ performance, the enthusiasm of voters who stayed for an event that started at 9 a.m. Saturday and ended at 7 p.m. also impressed veteran election watchers, who saw an electorate hungry to learn the specifics of where candidates stand.
“It was all that and actually informative — truly amazing in my experience,” said former Iowa GOP chairman Kayne Robinson, who claims 54 years of political experience in Iowa and nationally.
Mr. Rogers agreed. “We thought most people would head home after a few hours and watch the rest on TV, but the candidates were surprisingly all on their game and people stuck” around.
“My wife said she was afraid to go to the restroom for fear of missing something — it was almost all that good,” he added.
Meanwhile, almost 1,000 miles due south of Des Moines in Louisiana, Gov. Bobby Jindal, a born-again Catholic, skipped the Iowa presidential beauty pageant to throw an event catering to evangelicals.
He teamed with California-based religious conservative organizer David Lane to bring 200 evangelical pastors from around the country to Baton Rouge for a training session in how to run for political office — believed to be a or a first-time-ever in American politics.
Mr. Jindal sent letters to 49 other governors inviting them to participate in his spiritual renewal event in Baton Rouge or hold their own in their states’ capitals.
“There are limits to our own influence as governmental leaders,” he told his fellow governors. “Lasting change does not come only from laws and legislation, but from the changing of hearts produced by spiritual revival.”
The Jindal-Lane initiative signaled what may be the biggest, most organized push to politically enlist the 65 million or more evangelicals in the United States, most of whom are thought to be philosophically more aligned with the Republican national platform than with the Democratic one.
“Our goal in 2016 is to have 1,000 pastors running for city council, county commissioner, school board, mayor, Congress — who attract an average of 300 Christian volunteers per campaign,” Mr. Lane explained.
“That would amount to a total 300,000 grassroots, evangelical, precinct-level conservatives — from the bottom up — in 2016,” he added. “It would change America for good, a step toward restoring the nation to our Judeo Christian heritage and reestablishing a Christian culture.”
In all, about 6,000 born-again Christians attended the Jindal-Lane event in Baton Rouge, Mr. Lane said.
Several tea party and religious conservative activists along with Republicans who are Iowa government officials volunteered that Mr. Jindal’s presence was missed in Des Moines and that he has done himself some good in past visits to the first-in-the-nation presidential caucus state.
Among the crowd, attendees were eager to learn about candidates other than Mr. Bush and Mr. Romney, encouraged in that pursuit by the ever-flamboyant Donald Trump who used his speech to warn that picking either establishment candidate would be a disaster.
“Trump made it easier for many to openly discuss potential difficulties of Romney and Bush, which was commonly discussed in private before Trump said it aloud,” explained Mr. Robinson, the former Iowa chairman.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie used his opportunity on stage to directly confront what many conservatives have whispered privately: that he can’t win the GOP nomination. Mr. Christie declared that that anyone who claims he doesn’t share the audience’s conservative values is lying. Looking fitter and trimmer, Mr. Christie mostly read his prepared speech.
By contrast, Texas Gov. Rick Perry spoke without benefit of TelePrompters, darted back and forth on the stage, gesticulated and overall was his old energetic pre-2012 campaign self, attendees said.
Not so with former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who was uncharacteristically subdued in his delivery even though he had won the 2012 Iowa caucuses, beating out Mr. Romney by a thin margin.
Always popular with GOP audiences, Ben Carson, the first neurosurgeon to separate twins conjoined at the head, brought the Des Moines audience to its feet with several rhetorical flashes, including his proclamation that the next president must finally secure the border.
Among the four most talked-about candidates, only Mr. Cruz appeared in Iowa. Mr. Romney, Mr. Bush and Sen. Rand Paul skipped the event, leaving some disappointed.
“I think Rand hurt himself by not showing,” said Mr. Jones, the former Oklahoma GOP chairman. “He tends to make more sense, to be more substantive, to deliver his message a little better than most. Iowans didn’t get to see that.”
Mr. Rogers said he and his fellow Republicans missed Mr. Jindal’s presence in particular. “We talked about him not being there. He missed exposure to a broader audience in this hall and on television.”
Mr. Jindal told friends he thinks what he did back in Baton Rouge over the weekend ultimately will be more beneficial to the spiritual health of the nation. The question remains whether it will affect his own appeal at the ballot box.