2016 presidential hopefuls take the stage in Iowa

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DES MOINES, Iowa (CNN) — The 2016 Republican presidential race in Iowa got its unofficial start Saturday with a marathon of speeches, giving close to a dozen potential candidates a chance to introduce (or re-introduce) themselves to a core group of caucus-goers roughly one year before the contest.

Immigration and Islamic extremism took front and center as the White House hopefuls sought to test-drive their stump speeches. On style, it was Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz who saw strong receptions from the audience, though support for a wide number of candidates was expressed in the hallways after the event.

*temp* Related: Sarah Palin ‘seriously interested’ in 2016 run 

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie also sought to establish a deeper bond with the Iowa. The Hawkeye State receives outsized attention in presidential years thanks to its first-in-the-nation status during the primary season.

Marathon time

For the 10-hour day of back-to-back speeches, “the candidates” — as they were called — joined other high-profile Republicans at Hoyt Sherman Place, an old, intricate theater built in 1877 that also became the first public art museum in Des Moines.

Billed as the Iowa Freedom Summit, the event was co-hosted by Citizens United and Rep. Steve King, a revered lawmaker who represents the northwestern part of the state and has considerable clout among the more social conservative and Christian right faction of the party.

It was no secret that it was considered a cattle call for the presidential race. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, for example, said that the reason he ended his Fox News show was for a bigger goal he has in mind.

“It wasn’t just so I can go deer hunting every weekend, I can assure you that,” he said.

Others were more blatant.

“I am a potential presidential candidate, yes I am,” former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina told CNN.

Even Palin angled to get in on some of the action, teasing ahead of her appearance Saturday that she was now seriously considering a third run. And real estate titan Donald Trump told reporters Saturday that he’ll make his decision before June.

“I’m the one person who can make this country great again, that’s all I know,” he told reporters Saturday. “Nobody else can.”

Palin, in her remarks, was less forward. Ticking through a somewhat dizzying and hard-to-follow speech, Palin suggested that the country is ready for a woman leader — just not Hillary Clinton.

“Hey Iowa, can anyone stop Hillary?” she said, prompting the audience to cheer. “To borrow a phrase, yes we can!”

The class of 2016

The speakers, who were typically allotted 20 minutes, used a bulk of their speeches to share their own personal upbringings. Ben Carson and Christie talked about their strict but sharp mothers, while Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz talked about having pastors as fathers.

Other more well-known names in Iowa — like former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum who won the state’s caucuses in 2012 and Huckabee, who won in 2008 — tried to remind Iowans why they picked them in the first place, dipping into their personalities but also focusing on the issues.

Given King’s firebrand credentials as an outspoken opponent of illegal immigration, it was no surprise that problems at the border became a focal point in much of the speeches Saturday.

Carson, a retired neurosurgeon, argued “there wouldn’t be people coming in here if there wasn’t a magnet pulling them in,” suggesting there should be criminal punishment for employers who hire undocumented workers.

The main target in the immigration battle, however, was President Barack Obama’s executive action to delay deportation for up to five million undocumented immigrants. Or as Palin put it, in her folksy swagger, Obama’s decision makes him seem “like an overgrown little boy who’s just acting kinda spoiled.”

Speakers railed against the President’s pledge to use his “pen and his phone” to work around Congress, with immigration as just one example of what many called the president’s “overreach.”

That was punctuated with DREAM Act Coalition protesters interrupted Rick Perry’s speech, leading to one arrest and theater full of Iowans trying to drown out the demonstrators’ chants.

The potential candidates also warned about what they see as a dire path for the country, in particular when it comes to foreign policy, a theme that, along with immigration, also seems poised to become a flash point in the 2016 presidential race, unlike in 2012.

Santorum argued that the growth of is a consequence of the “isolationism” and “weakness” from the Obama’s administration. Cruz, like several speakers, said the President will fail in the war on terror if he refuses to use the words “radical Islamic terrorism.”

Huckabee blasted Obama for devoting more time to climate change in the State of the Union address than talking about terrorism.

“A beheading is a far greater threat to American than a sunburn,” Huckabee said.

The issues

There was plenty of the usual Iowa charm on stage, speeches with pig analogies and corn references. And there was more than one reference to how people in Iowa are somehow taller than average.

Shown on a big screen above the stage was an image of a red barn sitting on a green hill surrounded by white fences. Steve King’s name — in all caps — was plastered across banners on the stage, as well as the podium.

The contenders also dished out a bevy of red meat, blasting Obamacare, Common Core, the media, Hillary Clinton and the $18 trillion debt. Cruz won huge applause for proposing to place 110,000 IRS employees on the southern border, joking that they’ll do a better job at deterring illegal immigration than anything else.

Giving a shout out to the state’s newly elected U.S. senator, Joni Ernst, was also a popular item on the agenda for the potential candidates. Nearly all of them referred to her as her “friend,” and almost equal amount of affection and time was dedicated to the state’s other beloved senator, Chuck Grassley.

Walker, who, like Cruz, paced the stage back and forth as he spoke, delivered an impressive speech that honed in on his record as governor. He talked about implementing voter ID laws, and he painting himself as the valiant warrior who took on the public employees and won during the collective bargaining rights debate of 2011.

He also didn’t forget to mention that he’s been elected three times in the past four years.

Shortly after his speech, two men, both from Council Bluffs, talked outside about how they were wowed by Walker’s remarks.

“If he could do on a nationwide scale what he did in Wisconsin, this country would be,” one man, Michael Patomson, started to say, before his friend, Bill Hartzell, interjected: “Transformed. The country would be transformed.”

The reception

Many attendees had a hard time picking just one favorite in the line of potential contenders. Several mentioned Fiorina as a surprise hit.

“There was just a pantheon of people to listen to,” said Eric Rosenthal of Cedar Rapids.

“Rick Perry was better than last time I heard him — that’s good. He needs it,” said Ernie Rudolph of Dallas County, Iowa.

Christie also saw a warm reception and contested the idea that a Republican governor of a blue state who has a “Jersey guy” reputation will not connect with voters in Iowa.

“That somehow I’m too loud, I’m too blunt and I’m too direct,” Christie said, dismissing the criticism as “conventional wisdom” from Washington pundits. “They’re wrong.”

Still, he was noticeably different from his usual style. His demeanor was toned down and he read from his prepared remarks on the podium, a stark contrast to his preferred off-the-cuff method.

Some of the chatter in the hallways and to reporters also featured two potential contenders who weren’t there: Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney.

Trump put it simply: “Mitt had his chance. He should have won and he choked.” As for Bush: “We’ve had enough of the Bushes.”

Sens. Rand Paul and Marco Rubio, as well as Gov. Bobby Jindal, also skipped the event, but given that it’s year ahead before Iowans start to caucus, it’s unlikely that missing one event will hurt them.

Saturday’s event was more of a curtain raiser, giving the first glimpse of what will likely be a competitive Republican primary.

Walker, as he closed his speech, offered a pledge that will likely be mirrored my several of the speakers on stage over the next year: “I’m going to come back many more times.”

CNN’s Adam Levy contributed to this report.

1 Comment

  • Dave Francis (@DaveFrancis8)

    ARE GOP ELITISTS IN SECRET COLLUSION WITH OBAMA’S ILLEGAL AMNESTY?

    PEOPLE, BE ON THE ALERT FOR GOP ELITIST DEVIOUSNESS, ON OBAMA’S CORRUPT EXECUTIVE DIRECTIVE ON ILLEGAL IMMIGRATION?

    Surely the GOP Establishment is going to do the right thing when it comes to the heated argument over illegal immigration. Rumors are rife at the moment over Obama’s overreaching executive orders, granting the 5 million unauthorized persons living here. In fact the TEA PARTY, the real Conservatives believes that there are ONLY 5 million illegal aliens in the country. The numbers are in truth unknown and any statistics can be easily be altered. Citizen and legal resident should be committed to blast every state and federal politician through the main Washington switchboard at 1-866-220-0044, that they are being OBSERVED, as the mainstream of the people, especially the taxpayers don’t trust either party. The majority of the US population offered Senate and House Republicans the chance to prove that they were FOR the will of the people and not Wall Street lobbyists; puppets to the US Chamber of Commerce and any special interest by when they oust the summit of Democratic supremacy.

    Obama repeatedly he churns out executive orders and now memorandums that bypass Congress, making up his own laws as he goes. Now, he’s promising come hell or high water he WILL veto any piece of legislation that crosses his desk regarding blocking amnesty or Obamacare. We the People spoke in November. In no uncertain terms America said “NO AMNESTY!” Yet the self-appointed king, the warlord in the bully pulpit, does not give a toss. He proclaims his way or the highway.

    Then again, can we trust the top echelon in Republican pecking order? I really don’t think we can? Even from the start, they went along with $1.1 Trillion budget and know real solid barriers, than a flimsy amendment to the Homeland Security funding. They took the oath of Allegiance to keep America safe against enemies domestic and foreign, but the border remains poorly enforced or the deporting large numbers from our country. The say the deportability is high, but they counted the numbers who were removed just inside the border? This administration is good at fleecing the data.

    President of the National Citizenship and Immigration Services Council USCIS) Kenneth Palinkas, released a statement yesterday condemning President Obama’s executive amnesty, the lack of action in the Senate to reverse the executive actions, and the upcoming border security bill. Palinkas stated the “grave peril” that President Obama’s “skewed priorities” in granting executive amnesty to millions of illegal aliens puts the 12,000 adjudicators and personnel he represents at USCIS.

    The dedicated immigration service officers and adjudicators at USCIS are in desperate need of help. The President’s executive amnesty order for 5 million illegal immigrants places the mission of USCIS in grave peril. Instead of meeting our lawful function to protect the Homeland and keep out those who pose a threat to US security, health, or finances, our officers will be assigned to process amnesty for individuals residing illegally inside our nation’s borders. This compromises national security and public safety, while undermining officer morale.

    The Administration’s skewed priorities mean that the Crystal City amnesty processing center will likely have superior worksite conditions for personnel relative to our normal processing centers. Additionally, the security protocols at place in this facility will be insufficient to engage in any basic screening precautions, ensuring and rewarding massive amounts of fraud. For the Administration to continue down this course after the Paris attacks is beyond belief.

    Palinkas went on to call out members of the Senate for their lack of initiative to pass H.R. 240 that would “reverse the amnesty”.

    Yet where is the outrage from Congress? After the House passed its legislation to reverse the amnesty, all I hear is silence in the Senate. It seems Congressional leaders will not rise to defend the laws of the United States, but are giving in to the “imperial presidency.”
    Palinkas closed with concerns about the upcoming border security bill H.R. 399. Although it contains language to build 700 miles of border fence, implement a biometric exit system, and a requirement of operational control of the border, Palinkas stated it does not include “needed USCIS reforms”.

    I also remain concerned by the fact that needed USCIS reforms are not included in pending legislation. For instance, H.R. 399 – Chairman McCaul’s legislation – does nothing to preclude anyone in the world from turning themselves in at the US border and obtaining automatic entry and federal benefits. Almost anyone at all can call themselves an asylum-seeker and get in; it’s a global joke. It’s not border security if anyone can recite the magic words and get waved right on in. Those who arrived in the 2014 border run are still here, often living on US support and even applying for US jobs. The bill also delays by years the implementation of biometric exit-entry to police the rising overstay catastrophe.

    We process millions upon millions of applications every year for lifetime immigrant green cards, refugee admissions, asylum-seekers, temporary workers, visitors, tourists, and more – but we do so without any of the resources or mission support we need to screen these individuals properly, let alone to conduct in-person interviews. We admit individuals who have no business being admitted the United States, whether public charges, health risks, or radicalized Islamists, and in large numbers. It is unfair to employees, unfair to taxpayers, and unfair to anyone concerned about immigration security.

    We are saying to Congress: help us. Provide us the tools, mission support and resources we need to protect the Homeland, in accord with the laws and Constitution of the United States.

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