With little fanfare and limited press coverage, the first candidate forum of the 2012 Republican presidential primary was held in Iowa yesterday. The forum was sponsored by Ralph Reed’s Faith and Family coalition and was intended to be the major opening event of the election season. Instead, none of the major candidates showed up and it fizzled out with lukewarm press coverage and little followup from the sponsors, who haven’t even bothered to post video of the event to their YouTube page, though it did play live on C-SPAN.
An unkind observer might think that they are embarrassed that their major event to promote social conservatism in the Republican primary went off with a fizzle and passed nearly unnoticed by the party and was treated dismissively by the media. The sad truth is that of the 16 candidates generally believed to be running, only 5 chose to attend the FFC forum, and none of the major figures were there. The most prominent stars in their constellation of also-rans were Newt Gingrich who has some popularity within the party but is utterly unelectable, Herman Cain who is a great speaker but an outsider without a strong base of support and the increasingly disappointing flash-in-the-pan Tim Pawlenty, who got some early excitement but has already peaked and lost the interest of party activists.
The big guns were not there by choice. Although invited, Ron Paul, Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee were not in attendance. Nor were any of the exciting second-tier candidates like Governors Gary Johnson and Mitch Daniels, both of whom have charted a course focused on economic issues and actively downplaying any radical social agenda. Ron Paul was in Iowa, but chose to make a speech at a local university instead of attending. Romney and Johnson are focusing on New Hampshire. Daniels is recovering from a shoulder injury. Ironically, the most excited press coverage of the event focused on the exclusion of openly gay Republican Fred Karger who has followed up by filing an FEC complaint against the FFC.
Most of the performances were relatively uninspiring, as you might expect from a group of relatively unimpressive candidates. Not surprisingly the focus was on social issues, tailored to please the audience, coming from candidates who wouldn’t have been attending if they weren’t comfortable with that agenda, or perhaps because they are just desperate. There wasn’t a lot of red meat to be found, but Herman Cain gives one hell of a stump speech. I give him credit for being the only candidate who didn’t pander to the crowd by playing up his religious beliefs. He comes off kind of like a cross between Martin Luther King and Ronald Reagan.
With all the general excitement about the election, I think it is very telling that there was so little interest in attending this particular forum despite its key location and potentially large audience. It’s clear that major candidates are distancing themselves from the religious right and didn’t want to be seen in a context where they had to present themselves as too socially conservative. An awareness may finally be dawning among Republicans that the kind of pandering to the evangelical minority that may help you in a primary election in an extremely conservative state like Iowa is not going to help you in the general election and might even hurt you in key early primaries in other states like New Hampshire.
Aside from Cain, who may have made it through this forum looking strong and sensible by comparison, I think this may turn out to have been a farewell appearance rather than a campaign opener for most of these candidates.