GOP Con­tenders Flock to Iowa

Pres­i­den­tial Hope­fuls Try to Stand Out in Crowded Field

The Washington Post Sunday - - National News - By Peter Baker

DES MOINES, April 14 — What would Abra­ham Lin­coln have thought of the man in a rab­bit suit wear­ing a sign that said, “Varmints Against Mitt”?

It was the an­nual Lin­coln Day Din­ner here in Iowa, and the show was back in town. Varmint Man greeted Repub­li­can ac­tivists as the party’s ma­jor pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates showed up to speak from the same lectern for the first time.

Most of them had sim­i­lar mes­sages — they would be tough on ter­ror­ism, they would fight de­featist Democrats, they would keep taxes low, they would tackle il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion. Many rushed to ex­tol Ron­ald Rea­gan while barely men­tion­ing Pres­i­dent Bush. They kept re­as­sur­ing each other that it is good to be Repub­li­can de­spite re­cent polls and po­lit­i­cal tra­vails.

But with nine of them try­ing to dis­tin­guish them­selves from the pack here in this sea­son’s open­ing GOP pres­i­den­tial cat­tle call, the can­di­dates looked for small ways and large to at­tract at­ten­tion.

For­mer Mas­sachusetts gov­er­nor Mitt Rom­ney, who has been mocked for boast­ing that he has hunted “varmints” all his life, brought his wife and son on stage to demon­strate his fam­ily val­ues; he spoke af­ter for­mer New York mayor Ru­dolph W. Gi­u­liani, mar­ried three times and es­tranged from his son.

Kansas Sen. Sam Brown­back tried to cre­ate a sense of mo­men­tum by walk­ing around with a posse of 20 sup­port­ers shout­ing, “We Back Brown­back,” over and over. Ari­zona Sen. John McCain, short of cash com­pared to his main ri­vals, pa­pered the con­ven­tion cen­ter with hand-painted signs to sup­ple­ment pre-printed plac­ards. For­mer Arkansas gov­er­nor Mike Huck­abee brought a Bill Clin­ton im­per­son­ator on stage to make jokes about wom­an­iz­ing and Hil­lary Rod­ham Clin­ton, then threw a re­cep­tion where his band, Capi­tol Of­fense, per­formed.

“Peo­ple ask why am I run­ning for pres­i­dent,” Huck­abee joked. “Well, my band didn’t make it on ‘Amer­i­can Idol.’ ”

And so it went. To the ex­tent that the can­di­dates dif­fered on sub­stance, the field di­vided into two camps. Two fron­trun­ners who spoke first, Gi­u­liani and Rom­ney, stuck to uni- fy­ing themes of na­tional se­cu­rity and con­ser­va­tive eco­nomics. Those lag­ging be­hind in the polls, such as Huck­abee and Brown­back, echoed those themes but also raised so­cial is­sues ig­nored by the lead­ers, par­tic­u­larly abor­tion and same­sex mar­riage.

“We’re pro-life and proud of it,” Brown­back told his trail­ing band of shout­ing sup­port­ers. For­mer Vir­ginia gov­er­nor James S. Gil­more III mocked the top-tier can­di­dates as in­con­sis­tent. “Rudy McRom­ney is not a con­ser­va­tive,” he said, in the most di­rect shot of the evening.

By the time McCain got up to speak last, he opened by cit­ing his long-stand­ing op­po­si­tion to abor­tion “with­out chang­ing, with­out wa­ver­ing” be­fore mov­ing into his stump speech on the need to stay in Iraq. Asked af­ter­ward why he led with his abor­tion stance, McCain said, “So that ev­ery­one would know that for sure.” But when asked what he would do about abor­tion as pres­i­dent, he said he “would try to help change the cul­ture in Amer­ica.” So no leg­is­la­tion? “No,” he said.

Also speak­ing were for­mer Wis­con­sin gov­er­nor Tommy G. Thompson, Colorado Rep. Tom Tan­credo and Illi­nois party ac­tivist John Cox. Cal­i­for­nia Rep. Dun­can Hunter missed the din­ner be­cause of air­plane trou­ble. The crowd of 1,000 re­sponded po­litely to the speeches but only oc­ca­sion­ally was roused to en­thu­si­as­tic ap­plause.

A poll by Strate­gic Vi­sion, a firm that sur­veys for Repub­li­cans, found Gi­u­liani lead­ing the field in Iowa with 25 per­cent of likely cau­cus par­tic­i­pants, trailed by McCain with 20 per­cent. Fred D. Thompson, the ac­tor and for­mer Ten­nessee sen­a­tor who may run, placed third with 11 per­cent, fol­lowed by Rom­ney at 8 per­cent.

Even among GOP faith­ful, though, the poll found dis­en­chant­ment with Bush. Among likely cau­cus-go­ers, 77 per­cent said they do not see Bush as a “con­ser­va­tive Repub­li­can in the mode of Ron­ald Rea­gan.” And 52 per­cent fa­vored pulling all U.S. troops out of Iraq within six months.

More than most of the speak­ers, Gi­u­liani and McCain chal­lenged that sen­ti­ment, ar­gu­ing that Iraq was too crit­i­cal to give up on. “Never again are we go­ing to be on de­fense against ter­ror­ists,” Gi­u­liani said. “Re­treat, sur­ren­der, sched­ules of re­treat, cut­ting back on the Pa­triot Act, cut­ting back on elec­tronic sur­veil­lance, cut­ting back on in­ter­ro­ga­tion, that’s all de­fense.”

Mitt Rom­ney gives his au­to­graph to Yvonne Stock­seth of Hum­boldt, Iowa, at the Lin­coln Day Din­ner.

PHO­TOS BY CHAR­LIE NEIBER­GALL — AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Ru­dolph W. Gi­u­liani, left, talks to David David­son of West Des Moines as he seeks sup­port for his pres­i­den­tial bid.

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