A fleet of GOP contenders landed in Des Moines, Iowa, for the Freedom Summit on Saturday. The speeches from many of the potential presidential candidates, including Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, are available online and well worth sampling, but here are the seven most important takeaways from the event:
1. To a person, the GOP hopefuls in attendance are foreign policy hawks, decrying the president’s lack of leadership and affirming America’s role, as Perry put it, as the “last best hope” of the world. Perry in particular spent a good chunk of his time defending America’s leadership in the world. U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., was not in attendance, but judging from the rousing applause for candidates espousing a tough line on foreign policy (one of the biggest applause lines of the day was Walker’s: “We need leaders who will stand with our allies against radical Islamic terrorists“), he will have a very tough time convincing GOP activists we need a foreign policy to President Obama’s left.
2. Walker gained the most ground, showing some fire and rousing the audience as he strode around the stage. By calling for the party to go “big and bold” and reviewing his record on everything from school reform to tort reform and tax reductions, he made a compelling case for his brand of “common-sense conservatism.” He charmed the audience with his anecdotes (like shopping at the discount department store Kohl’s), cementing his image of a middle-class, hard-working Midwesterner. Most important, he also showed he could lift a crowd and may have gone a long way in batting down the criticism that he lacks rhetorical skills.
3. With a number of newcomers looking at 2016, Huckabee and Rick Santorum seemed to be yesterday’s news. Huckabee continued to play to the evangelical voters, while Santorum has taken the Luddite position in opposing even legal immigration. Given that both are past winners in Iowa, finishing out of the top couple of places may spell the end of their ambitions. And with dynamic opponents, it is hard to think either can win the caucuses this time around.
4. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie may have been the biggest disappointment. He spent much of his speech trying to defend his electability in Iowa. Even worse, he gave his natural base — moderate Republicans — every reason to believe he intends to pander his way through the primaries, trying to convince voters he is something that he is not. Once again he felt it necessary to effusively laud the anti-immigrant gadfly Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, whose comments about immigrants have made him the subject of ridicule even within the party. Christie would “do anything” for King? The point of these outings is to make new friends without losing your soul and your old friends. In that regard, Christie flunked the balancing test.
5. Perry was animated with a solid traditional conservative message centered on energy, debt and fiscal discipline. While he took on the mantle as a tough defender of the border, he did not stoop to scaring the audience about foreigners taking their jobs. He put the border crisis in terms of failed governance and spoke with empathy about the children and the victims of human trafficking. If immigration was a drag for him in 2012, he gets major kudos now on border security. He also managed to slap some potential opponents from the Senate, which he called a “debating society.” His accusation that President Obama “abandoned friends and weakened allies” was met with a standing ovation. Flat out, he blamed Obama’s reluctance for allowing the Islamic State to rise in Syria and declared that the Islamic State is in a war against the Western world.
6. Cruz lit up the crowd with his favorite one-liners. But promising to close the IRS (with no alternative) and asserting that he is the most conservative in the pack (“Every candidate’s going to come in front of you and say ‘I’m the most conservative guy to ever live.’ Talk is cheap.”) underscores his utter lack of appeal beyond the hard-core base. Walker’s strong performance also highlighted the difference between conservative governors who can run on their record and senators such as Cruz who have no significant accomplishments or executive record. During a panel on Sunday with Paul and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., he played second fiddle to Rubio, who was expansive and in command, especially on foreign policy. Cruz may discover his own talk is cheap, and his record and knowledge compare unfavorably with that of several opponents.
7. Mitt Romney was another loser, although he was not in attendance. With so many interesting and accomplished candidates, why does the party need him to run again? Weren’t all these candidates right about Obama just like Romney was? It is hard to see in this strong and diverse field how Romney is going to stay on top once the advantage of name recognition fades.