DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — The robust Christian right in early-voting Iowa plays an outsize role in helping determine the Republican presidential nominee, a political reality not lost on the parade of would-be 2016 candidates trying to draw attention at a Saturday gathering of social conservatives.
Govs. Chris Christie of New Jersey and Scott Walker of Wisconsin, former Govs. Rick Perry of Texas and Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and many others turned the Iowa Freedom Forum into the unofficial launch of the next campaign for the Iowa caucuses. More than 1,000 religious conservatives met at a refurbished theater to hear them pitch their policies and their values.
Christie may have had the most to gain — or lose — from appearing at the forum. Considered a moderate in some GOP circles and a party establishment choice in others, the New Jersey governor tried to connect with grass-roots conservative activists by assuring them that trust is more important than total agreement.
"If you want a candidate who agrees with you 100 percent of the time, I'll give you a suggestion: Go home and look in the mirror. You are the only person you agree with 100 percent of the time," he said. "You'll always know who I am, you'll always know what I believe and you'll always know where I stand."
To back up his conservative credentials, Christie proclaimed his opposition to gay marriage and abortion rights. He also rejected the idea that Republicans could be competitive in traditionally Democratic states by abandoning opposition to abortion rights. "And I'm living proof," he said.
In his remarks, Cruz cited the Bible as he challenged caucus participants to back only presidential candidates with a proven conservative track record. "You know what," he said, "talk is cheap. The word tells us you shall know them by their fruits ... Look every candidate in the eye and say 'Don't talk, show me.'"
While he criticized President Barack Obama's foreign policy and other actions, Huckabee warned about the dangers of intraparty fighting. "We don't need to spend the next two years beating each other up in the conservative tent. We need to tell America what's right with this country," he said.
Perry also pointed to the end of the Obama administration: "I got a feeling that after six years of disappointment, of mediocrity and decline, a slow course correction is not what voters are going to be looking for in 2016."
Walker promoted his administration's enactment of voter identification, concealed carry handgun and abortion restriction legislation — all red-meat issues to the conservative audience. For many Republicans, he is best known for beating back a recall effort and then winning re-election.
"You see, I think that sends a powerful message to Republicans in Washington and around the country that if you're not afraid to go big and go bold you can actually get results," Walker said.
Rick Santorum, the former senator from Pennsylvania who won the 2012 Iowa caucuses, said the GOP needs to do a better job convincing working Americans that Republicans are on their side.
"We don't win because too many people don't think we care about them. We have to show them not just by saying we do, but by having policies and a message where they can see it and feel it in us," Santorum said as he called for lower taxes, less regulation and stronger family values.
The forum's sponsor, Rep. Steve King of Iowa, opened the event by asking the crowd, "Do you believe that the next president of the United States is going to be speaking to you today?" The audience erupted in applause and King responded, "As do I."
Among others speaking at the forum were businesswoman Carly Fiorina, Dr. Ben Carson, former vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin and real estate mogul and reality TV star Donald Trump. Missing were two possible candidates considered leading contenders for the nomination: former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and the party's 2012 nominee, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
Trump let it be known that he didn't think much of the pair. "You can't have Romney. He choked," Trump said. "You can't have Bush. The last thing we need is another Bush."
In addition to Bush and Romney, also absent from the lineup were Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Marco Rubio of Florida. A forum by King, a hardline conservative who has been particularly vocal about opposing immigration reform, could push some would-be candidates further to the right than they want to go on immigration, education, foreign policy and other issues.
King's record of harsh rhetoric toward immigrants in the U.S. illegally drew protesters to his event. Several were escorted out of the forum by police after chanting "If you become president, will you deport our families?" during speeches by Perry and Christie. Amid the interruption, Christie asked the audience, "Don't they know I'm from New Jersey?"
Few political observers would predict Christie, better known nationally for his union and budget battles, to emerge as the favorite among Iowa's evangelical voters. Yet his appearance Saturday could allow him to make inroads with a group focused as much on ideological purity as defeating the Democrat nominated to follow Obama.
Christie reached beyond many of the others who served up only popular partisan lines Saturday. He called for a second American century, where conservative economic principles and compassion meet.
"We're here to create that America," he said. "You don't do it by pandering. You don't do it by telling people what they want to hear. You do it by telling them the truth."
As an example, Christie said supporting life, the term conservatives use for opposing abortion, means caring for people who become drug-addicted or convicted of crimes.
"Those lives have value, too," he said, prompting a ripple of applause.
Associated Press writer Catherine Lucey contributed to this report.