A bevy of Republicans vying for the 2016 presidential nomination attended the Iowa Freedom Summit on Saturday, angling for ways to build a base of supporters in one of the key battlegrounds of the GOP primary.
The Des Moines event featured three candidates—Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee, Rick Perry—who had already ran in the last primary as well as relative newcomers on the national scene like Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas.).
The state is known as a Republican stronghold, and the speakers at the summit were apt to wear their conservatism on their sleeves.
“Talk’s cheap. Every candidate will describe how conservative they are. Far more relevant is to ask when have you stood up and fought, when have you bled, and what have you accomplished for conservative principles?” Cruz said at a press conference at the summit.
Noticeably absent from the summit were the two Republican candidates leading in the polls nationwide, Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush, more centrist figures who are favorites of the political establishment. In a CBS poll, 59 percent of likely Republican primary voters wanted Romney to run for president, nearly triple of the support for Cruz.
Still, if those two candidates are keen on the lessons of past elections, soon they’ll have to make inroads in Iowa, whose famous caucus can bury established figures and propel an unknown into the lead.
“The polls right now don’t matter. The national polls, if we go back 8 years at this time, in the beginning of 2007, everyone was talking about Rudy Giuliani versus Hillary Clinton,” said David Redlawsk, a professor of political science at Rutgers who has written a book on the Iowa caucuses.
In 2008, Giuliani chose to forego the contests in Iowa and New Hampshire, instead putting all of his eggs into the Florida primary basket, which he ended up losing.
“The problem that happened is because of the sequential system, if you ignore the first couple of states, it’ll probably be too late for you to catch up, the media focuses on those who do better than expected,” Redlawsk said, who thinks that at the moment the Republican field is “wide-open,” and that the gap between Romney and a candidate at the summit could be quickly closed.
In fact, the underdog status of some of the candidates at the summit can become an advantage later on.
“No one really wants to be the front runner at the moment, it sets the expectations and you have to meet them,” Redlawsk said. “[In the early primaries] it’s certainly no worse to be expected to come in second and then win, that gets you a lot of attention.”