AMES, Iowa — The lineup of potential 2016 GOP presidential candidates courting Iowa conservatives Saturday agreed on two things: America is on the wrong track and they could move it in the right direction.
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and past caucus winners Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee addressed more than 1,000 evangelical voters at the Family Leadership Summit in Ames. Though the state’s kickoff caucuses are over a year away, all wanted to impress Christian conservative voters, who traditionally influence the caucuses because they tend to be organized and motivated to participate.
Cruz, a Tea Party darling, repeatedly drew listeners to their feet with a fiery speech that took shots at President Barack Obama and extoled traditional Christian values.
“We need to stand unambiguously for the commonsense conservative principles shared by the vast majority of Americans,” Cruz said as he criticized the national health care law, national education standards and other initiatives disliked by many conservatives.
“We need to stand for life,” he said. “We need to stand for marriage. We need to abolish the IRS. We need to repeal Obamacare. We need to repeal Common Core.”
With a wide field of possible contenders, this group of voters has not settled on a favored candidate. Some potential candidates skipped the gathering. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who toured the state this week, provided an anti-abortion video. But New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker have spent little time in Iowa.
Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad recently led an effort to install new leadership in the state party and to bring more traditional Republicans into the fold, in hopes of making the state more attractive to mainstream candidates.
But the expected turnout at the summit shows the faith vote remains powerful. The candidates largely emphasized conservative principles, like opposition to abortion and gay marriage, reducing the size of government and curtailing illegal immigration. Most stressed their support for Israel’s government and questioned Obama’s foreign policies.
Huckabee, a former governor of Arkansas and the last to speak, focused on foreign policy, accusing the administration of not supporting Israel and arguing that the U.S. should provide arms to Iraq’s Kurds.
“If we had good sense we would arm the Kurds as we said we would. We gave them nothing, not so much as a BB gun,” Huckabee said.
Cruz also used the occasion to question Obama’s foreign policy decisions. He told reporters that if Obama continues military engagement in Iraq, the president should seek congressional approval.
The crowd responded warmly to Perry when he repeated his criticism of Obama’s response to the recent flood of unaccompanied child immigrants that has overwhelmed authorities in Texas. He drew a standing ovation for repeating his credo: “If you will not secure the border of our country, then the state of Texas will.”
Meanwhile, Santorum, a former senator from Pennsylvania, took a different approach, telling the crowd that the Republican Party needs to better appeal to working-class voters, calling it the “party of the average person.”
Drawing the most laughter was Jindal’s speech, which featured anecdotes about his immigrant parents and the birth of his kids, feeling at times like an introduction to voters. Still, he got a rousing response to comments about changing leadership in Washington.
“The people have had enough and we’re ready to take our country back. We don’t need incremental change. We need big change. They better get out of the way,” Jindal said.
While there are many months until the caucuses, any serious 2016 prospect must pay attention to these religious voters, said Jamie Johnson, a pastor from Stratford who served as an adviser to Santorum in 2012.
“The Christian community, which is passionate about two issues — abortion and traditional marriage — they’re going to come to the caucuses,” Johnson said. “To ignore Christian conservatives in Iowa is to say, ‘I’m not interested in winning.'”
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