2016 Republican Hopefuls Court Range of Voters at Iowa Forum

Source: By Reid Epstein, WSJ • Posted: Tuesday, January 27, 2015

DES MOINES, Iowa—A parade of potential candidates for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination sought to win the favor of conservative activists at a forum here Saturday but also called for expanding the party’s appeal to centrist Republicans and, in some cases, to Democrats.

Proposals that the party adopt a more inclusive agenda were sprinkled amid a heavy dose of conservative applause lines at the nearly 10-hour event, which marked the unofficial kickoff of the Republican presidential campaign in the state that holds the first nominating contest.

Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin stressed his record of winning votes from Democrats. New Jersey Gov.  Chris Christie  touted 2013 exit polls that showed he won a majority of the state’s Hispanic voters and women, a feat he said the party must repeat if it hopes to retake the White House.

Mike Huckabee  reminded the crowd that he governed Arkansas with Democratic legislative supermajorities.

“We need a coalition that covers all parts of the country, all ethnicities—a coalition that is comprised at its core of our proud yet underserved and unrepresented working class,” Mr. Christie said.

The calls for a wider appeal at the Iowa Freedom Summit here come as the state’s Republicans are contending with the fact that the last two caucus winners, Mr. Huckabee in 2008 and former Sen.  Rick Santorum  in 2012, failed to win the party’s nomination.

The event came as Iowa’s top Republican officials spent the weekend making their quadrennial plea to would-be presidential candidates to spend as much time as possible stumping in the state.

“They’ve got to come here often and really take it seriously and travel the state and meet the people and answer their questions and build an organization,” Gov. Terry Branstad said in an interview at his state Capitol office. “A lot of that is old-fashioned hard work.”

The work began Saturday at the Iowa Freedom Summit, a gathering of conservatives that heard from two dozen politicians. At least half of the speakers, including Donald Trump and former Alaska Gov.  Sarah Palin , say they are considering running for president in 2016.

Absent from the event were some of the party’s highest-profile figures.  Mitt Romney , the 2012 GOP nominee, and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush skipped the forum, as did Sens.  Rand Paul  (R., Ky.) and  Marco Rubio  (R., Fla.).

Messrs. Romney and Bush are considered heavyweights among the party’s business-friendly, “establishment’’ wing, and their absence underscored a divide in the emerging field between the two men and others working hardest to appeal to the party’s conservative base.

Messrs. Huckabee and Santorum, the two prior Iowa caucus winners, have returned to compete for the same social conservative electorate. Both offered a plea to their potential competitors to avoid attacking fellow Republicans.

“We don’t need to take the next two years beating each other up in the conservative tent,” Mr. Huckabee said. “We need to tell America what’s right with this country.”

Mr. Santorum, who won the 2012 caucuses after a drawn-out, personal and heated contest with Mr. Romney, said the right GOP candidate will be one who projects a positive message.

“Look for that message that can bring us together,” he said. “Pointing the finger and condemning somebody doesn’t win you a whole lot of arguments, and importantly, doesn’t bring us together.”

Utah Sen. Mike Lee, who has said he isn’t running, cautioned against tests of ideological purity. “A conservative candidate who ignores moderates is as misguided as a moderate candidate who ignores conservatives,’’ he said. “The candidate we all deserve can attract both without alienating either.”

Even Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, whose national profile is based upon his intramural wars with the party establishment, said Republicans won’t win elections unless they can expand their appeal.

“Together, we need to reassemble the Reagan coalition. We need to unify. We need to bring together conservatives and evangelicals and libertarians and Republican women and Reagan Democrats and young people,” Mr. Cruz said.

Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, appearing before many of the Republican activists for the first time, delivered a speech heavy on his own biography and a call for smaller government. He called for government policy to be driven by what he called “common sense.”

“I’m certain that if my mother was the secretary of the Treasury, we would not be in a deficit situation,” he said. “A big problem of our government right now is that our government is just too big.”

Prescriptions for policy that would appeal to those outside the conservative wing of the GOP were few. Saturday’s event was sponsored by Iowa Rep. Steve King, one of the Capitol’s foremost opponents of liberalizing immigration law. Speaker after speaker lavished praise on Mr. King.

Mr. Walker’s speech was highly anticipated among Iowa Republicans. He said he grew up poor and talked about frugal shopping tactics that helped him save money on shirts at his local Kohl’s department store, a not-subtle appeal to working-class voters. He said it helped him to win over voters who otherwise vote for Democrats.

In Wisconsin, Mr. Walker said, “people like the direction they’re headed. Maybe that’s why I won the race for governor three times in the last four years. Three times, mind you, in a state that hasn’t gone Republican for president since I was in high school more than 30 years ago. How about that?”