The Republican Party of Iowa’s Growth And Opportunity event on Saturday was meant as a sort of replacement for the Iowa Straw Poll, and judging from many of the candidates’ speeches you’d think they were still in that August mindset. Few of the White House hopefuls deviated from their typical stump speeches. Despite being a mere three months from the Iowa Caucus, many contenders’ pitches remain in the introductory stage. That seemed odd considering most of the 2,000 attendees at the event were involved party activists who have seen all of these people at events or watched them online.
The entire affair largely reinforced my concern that few Republicans are going all-out to win Iowa. Again, the Iowa Republican electorate seems to be completely up for grabs at this point. And yet no one tried to hit a home run in one of the last multi-candidate events that thousands of caucus-goers attended. Most of the campaigns put in a decent showing with their booths and volunteers, but none made a big show of anything. Coming a week after the Democrats’ Jefferson Jackson Dinner, the difference in campaign organization and voter enthusiasm for their candidates between the two parties couldn’t be clearer.
Still, there were interesting takeaways to be seen.
Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush were the two who seemed to want it the most on Saturday. Cruz spiced up his speech with attacks on the recent CNBC debate debacle, delighting the crowd with some new red meat lines. Bush gave an exceptionally impassioned appeal as to why experience matters and how Republicans can’t be led astray by less serious, trash-talking leaders.
The event solidified the feeling that both Cruz and Rubio hold the most momentum in Iowa currently, as they both had the largest crowds. Cruz’s audience was the loudest with plenty of sign-waving supporters, and a horde of press and activists swarmed Rubio after his speech.
Bush, however, may been the most interesting to watch. He clearly realizes his campaign is reeling from a terrible week of a bad debate performance, an embarrassing leaked memo and the surge of fellow Floridian Rubio. The difficulties seemed to energize him and many of the voters there noticed. He also appeared to have the most volunteers and staff at the event, which makes you wonder: if that operation leads to numbers like these, what do the other Republicans’ campaigns look like behind the scenes? Maybe none of them have long lists of identified supporters or vast volunteer networks (or at least not the other “establishment” candidates Bush is competing with).
Those were the highlights, but each candidate’s appearance provided a good look into their campaign mindset for the Iowa Caucus. Here’s what Starting Line thought of each, in order of appearance:
As usual, these kind of events aren’t best-suited for Paul’s style. Much more of his pitch seemed to focus on what’s wrong with government than why he’s the one to lead it. He spent a considerable amount of time on government spending on obscure, seemingly-needless items, and blasted what America spends on foreign aid, using easy applause lines of how he wouldn’t send money to countries that persecute Christians. He slammed Republican leadership continuously, arguing that they accomplished barely anything despite their many electoral victories. It was all largely run-of-the-mill applause lines, and little else. Paul left soon after he finished, and his booth seemed to have minimal effort at it. These party events aren’t where he focuses his efforts.
Cruz once again showed that he knows what the Republican primary electorate wants to hear, and can deliver it to them better than anyone else. He switched up his stump speech considerably for the activist crowd, offering up a long bit on how he thinks Republican debates should be structured (all run by Fox News’ late night hosts, essentially). At one point he held up a post card to demonstrate how small Americans’ tax filings would be with his flat tax, the only one to use a visual aid. Cruz stuck around at the event for a long time afterward, with hundreds of attendees swarming his booth to shake his hand. His campaign booth was also the most elaborate, with a Common Core “House of Horrors” maze for Republicans to walk through.
The New Jersey Governor went straight into Q&A with the crowd, as he often does. Christie was more energized from the back-and-forth with the crowd than any speech likely could have provided him. He easily beat back one pointed question from a woman who asked whether he had helped Barack Obama win reelection by thanking him for the Hurricane Sandy assistance. Volunteers and staff held up large Christie heads as he spoke, and Christie himself worked the crowd for a long time around the event. If he ends up spending more time in Iowa as he recently indicated, Christie may have a real opportunity here for a decent showing.
It was the same song and dance routine for Jindal, who kept to his crowd-pleasing lines that Starting Line has heard often on the campaign trail. He gave his usual strong delivery, but something seemed flat about it – there simply wasn’t the same kind of authenticity or character to his performance that other candidates exuded. He warned the audience about how other candidates would get up and give nice speeches with plenty of red meat lines, but that’s exactly what he did for his entire speech. And he pitched completely unrealistic, feel-good ideas like firing all of Congress. Perhaps Republicans see through Jindal’s over-the-top pandering, and that’s why he hasn’t caught on more yet.
Marco Rubio drew the largest crowd out of the after-lunch group of contenders, with many eager to watch the man with all the momentum following Rubio’s strong debate performance this week. However, Rubio did not sway from his comfort zone of the stump speech he’s delivered for months now, pushing for vocational training, criticizing philosophy college majors, and outlining his humble upbringing and his parents’ background of achieving the American Dream. It seemed like a missed opportunity. Starting Line could recite most of the speech he gave from memory, and certainly the vast majority of the Republican attendees knew it too. Rubio attracted the most interest on Saturday, yet only told the crowd the things that got them interested in the first place, and nothing that would lock in their support. Rubio has steadily increased his support in Iowa and across the country, but has not put the caucus state in the forefront of his campaign strategy (he’s been here three days this month). At some point he needs to think about closing the deal with voters in order to capitalize on his newfound excitement.
Mike Huckabee followed Marco Rubio, and a good chunk of the crowd and media followed the Florida Senator after he left the stage, leaving a smaller gathering for Huckabee, though he is comfortable in that setting. Huckabee began his remarks with complaints of the CNBC debate earlier this week, calling the moderators’ handle of the debate “a train wreck.” Huckabee also complained of the lack of time he was allotted from the most recent two debates, saying that his time on the Growth And Opportunity Party stage was more than in the national limelight. Granted, both lines are true, but they don’t get Huckabee anywhere in this arena. Other than that, his remarks to the crowd were his usual stump speech ideas, but with less fervor and enthusiasm compared to other candidates during the day. It’s not like Huckabee was tired (he did hunt with Grassley earlier that day), but his speaking style did not ignite the same fire in the crowd as others before him. In comparison to the rest in the GOP field, Huckabee is the same old Evangelical pastor running as he was back in 2008, except this time he has a larger pool to contend with and a strong counterpart, Ted Cruz, that is garnering support from the Evangelical Conservative group that vouched for him eight years ago. Huckabee’s ship has sailed, and right now it’s his name recognition, loyalty from longtime supporters and status as a former Fox News host that is keeping him in the race.
The low-polling South Carolina senator delivered his usual stump speech in front of Iowa Republicans, filled with jokes about Senator Chuck Grassley, his humble upbringing in a pool room and bar, his credentials to be the best Commander in Chief, and the need for Republicans and Democrats to drink together in Washington like Tip O’Neill and President Ronald Reagan. But Graham was more energetic and fired up than usual: he had rousing moments that brought more applause than he probably has ever had here in Iowa, and it served him well. Of course, Graham is also comfortable in smaller gatherings where he can showcase his Southern personality, but it was refreshing to hear him harness the energy of the crowd today and channel it into a speech that sounds like he’s actually running for president. Still, while the audience laughed and cheered, few came up to talk to him afterward, unlike the hundreds that swarmed Bush, Rubio and Cruz.
Jeb ain’t dead. At least not yet, anyway. The former front-runner fought back on Saturday against predictions of the imminent demise of his campaign, delivering a surprisingly emotional and enthusiastic speech that – without naming them – blasted Trump for insulting Iowans over bad poll numbers and Rubio over missed votes. It still wasn’t an overwhelming home run that will win back voters drifting toward Rubio, and Bush still risks fading too quickly into the background. But it certainly signaled Bush realizes the dire straights he’s in and is willing to fight back, rather than get frustrated and gloomy. He too stuck around long after his speech, attracting the largest press and activist scrum of the day.
What Bush does next in Iowa and nationally will be fascinating to watch. On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton retooled her campaign back in September to right her listing campaign ship. Bernie Sanders is undergoing a shift in tactics to build on his earlier momentum. Bush is one of the few Republicans actually trying to enter a different phase of messaging and strategy in his campaign to turn things around for the early state home stretch. It’s worked for the Democrats, we’ll see if it works for him.
Once riding the wave of popularity that came after her second debate performance in September, Carly Fiorina’s time on stage was not one of a front-runner. She started off complaining about how her microphone had gotten cut off at RPI’s Lincoln Day Dinner, and then recalled how no one gave her a shot and how she had to participate in the undercard debate in August. It came off exceptionally whiny, re-fighting needless battles, and didn’t give her the look of where she wants to be in this race. Her speech was almost identical to any one of the speeches she’s given in front of a large Iowa crowd, and reporters in the room could essentially press pause and fast forward and not miss a good soundbite. Again, it’s not as if Fiorina’s remarks were boring or her connection with the crowd was fake – she just failed to distinguish her statements from any other campaign stop. We’re less than 100 days from the Iowa Caucus and you’re still telling us about your secretary days and your move to Hewlett-Packard? Fiorina’s audience was also diminished as Bush, Cruz and Christie remained at the event while she spoke. With nearly a fourth of the seats empty and a speech that failed to move her forward, it’s clear Fiorina’s time in the primary is fading fast.
The send-off music started playing, but just like his campaign as a whole, Santorum didn’t know it was time to stop talking. Eventually they cut his microphone off after the former 2012 Iowa Caucus winner clearly wasn’t moving to wrap up. Only about a fourth of the seats were full for him anyway. Santorum’s speech was actually one of the best-tailored to an Iowa audience, including his usual strong defense of the RFS. But he also did a deep dive into his past Congressional history, talking about elections he barely won in the 1990s, and legislative battles he fought with Bill Clinton. It all made him seem like a candidate of the past, and I have absolutely no idea how he catches fire at this point to move back up in the polls.
by Pat Rynard