DES MOINES – In what activists have described as the kickoff event of the 2016 Iowa caucuses, 28 speakers, including eight potential Republican presidential candidates, took the stage at an all-day political gabfest, desperately seeking the same thing: to score the one zinger that could build buzz and launch a campaign.
At the first ever Iowa Freedom Summit, sponsored by conservative firebrand US Representative Steve King and Citizens United, invited politicians were told when and where to speak.
What they were supposed to say — and how they would differentiate themselves from everyone else — they had to figure out themselves. They were given 20 minutes apiece to make their pitch to 1,200 of the state’s top conservative activists.
“Your goal as a candidate is to show differences in style and substance without directly mentioning your opponents – especially since you don’t even know who they are,” said Tim Albrecht, an Iowa Republican consultant who has worked for Iowa Governor Terry Branstad and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney’s 2008 presidential campaign.
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker tried the “I am like you” approach, describing in detail how he buys clothes at Kohl’s. Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson used self-deprecating jokes. Former Virginia governor Jim Gilmore was introduced as an all-American clarinet player. Texas Senator Ted Cruz quoted “Amazing Grace.”
Then there was New York businessman Donald Trump, who delivered zingers one after another.
He announced he was once again “seriously considering” a run for president — but argued that Romney should not run a third time because “he choked” when he lost to President Obama in 2012. “It can’t be Mitt because Mitt ran and failed. You can’t have Romney. He choked,” Trump said.
Trump also dismissed the potential candidacy of former Florida governor Jeb Bush, who he said shouldn’t run because of his support for the Common Core educational standards. The “last thing we need is another Bush,” Trump said.
Romney and Bush — establishment GOP politicians whose potential 2016 rivalry has been the focus of much chatter in recent days — were both invited but did not attend the event. Only one other major potential Republican presidential candidate, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, wasn’t there, choosing instead to attend a political donor conference in California put on by Charles and David Koch.
At times the crowd at Saturday’s event grew rowdy. Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin got a standing ovation for a speech in which she referred to President Obama as “a little boy.” And protesters claiming to be in the country illegally interrupted former Texas governor Rick Perry’s speech before being removed by police.
The weekend’s Freedom Summit had the atmosphere of a reunion of sorts, since it was the first large Iowa caucus event in three years. At the Des Moines Marriott on Friday night, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum chatted with Palin. Hours later former House speaker Newt Gingrich, Trump, and Gilmore ate breakfast together.
On stage, amid the one-liners, there was also serious discussion of issues. Walker spoke about teacher tenure. Santorum focused on the middle class and the American Dream. Gingrich and former UN ambassador John Bolton discussed the threat of Islamic terrorists. Cruz said he wanted to “repeal every single word in Obamacare.”
The event comes at a time when no one has officially announced a presidential campaign, but behind the scenes multiple would-be candidates are offering jobs to top-notch local operatives in Iowa and New Hampshire, hosts of the first two 2016 nominating contests.
Besides speaking at the event Walker, Santorum, Cruz, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, and businesswoman Carly Fiorina held private meetings with activists. Earning their support will be critical in a state where candidates need to organize more than 1,700 individual caucus meetings.
With the Iowa caucuses scheduled to take place in 53 weeks, local Republicans are looking to back candidates who don’t just say the right things but also explain how they will fight for causes in office even if they aren’t popular, said Republican National Committeeman Steve Scheffler.
“After Obama, Republicans here are listening to all this talking, but what they are looking for is who they believe can continue to lead the fight when they win,” Scheffler said.
James Pindell can be reached at James.Pindell@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell.