Herman Cain and Mitt Romney, leading in polling of the Republican presidential race in Iowa, passed up a closely watched annual party fundraising dinner in the state where caucuses start the nominating process in less than two months.
With five of their rivals speaking last night at the gathering of some of the state’s most committed party activists, the absence of Romney and Cain highlighted their hesitant and unorthodox campaign approaches to Iowa ahead of the Jan. 3 caucuses.
“The caucuses are right around the corner, and I think it’s important for the candidates to take every opportunity to be here,” said Bill Schickel, co-chairman of the Republican Party of Iowa. “But we understand that schedules sometimes conflict.”
Romney and Cain were in Washington yesterday to give speeches at an event sponsored by Americans for Prosperity, a Tea Party-aligned fiscally conservative group. Cain, a former businessman, was also dealing with fallout from sexual harassment allegations made against him in the 1990s when he was the chief executive officer of the National Restaurant Association.
Cain, 65, has little organization in Iowa -- traditionally a prerequisite for a strong caucus showing. Though he spent considerable time in the state earlier this year, his visits have become a rarity even as his support has grown in Iowa polls and national surveys.
Romney, the former Massachusetts governor and business executive, appears to be increasing his campaign presence in Iowa, after spending most of this year signaling a less-than-all-out effort to win the caucuses.
He is scheduled to make two campaign stops next week in eastern Iowa. The visits will follow stops he made in the state less than three weeks earlier and mark his fourth trip to Iowa this year.
The Associated Press reported that Romney’s campaign is running automated telephone messages in Iowa that accuse Texas Governor Rick Perry of aiding illegal immigration.
The messages are the most obvious sign yet that Romney, 64, plans to campaign more aggressively in Iowa and that he views Perry as his biggest threat there.
Perry’s campaign responded to news of the phone calls by calling into question Romney’s record as Massachusetts governor.
“Mitt Romney rails against magnets that encourage illegal immigration, but the magnetic pull of free health care for illegal immigrants that he approved made Massachusetts an attractive destination for them,” Perry spokesman Ray Sullivan said in a statement.
Romney has repeatedly criticized Perry for his defense of a measure he signed allowing illegal immigrants who graduate from Texas high schools to receive the lower in-state tuition rates at state colleges. Romney has called that measure a magnet for illegal immigration, while Perry has defended it as a way to keep the young people from becoming a drain on state resources.
Perry was disparaged for that position by a caller yesterday during his appearance on WHO-AM radio in Des Moines. While not backing down from the Texas law, Perry reiterated previous comments that he made a “huge error” during a September candidate debate in questioning the compassion of those opposing the measure.
Last night’s party dinner, named after former President Ronald Reagan, is the largest annual fundraiser for Iowa Republicans and attracted about 1,000 people.
A year ago, it drew roughly 1,500 when former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin was the keynote speaker. At the time, she was still contemplating a presidential candidacy; she announced early last month she wouldn’t run.
“I also want to recognize all of my competitors that are here,” Perry said in his opening remarks. “Each and every one of them would do a heck of a lot better job than what we’ve got in the White House right now.”
Perry also played off the Occupy Wall Street movement.
“We’re involved in a project called operation occupy the White House,” he said.
“No one can argue that the president didn’t inherit a bad economy,” he said. “But no one can argue that he ain’t made it worse, either.”
If elected, Perry said he would call for a pay freeze for members of Congress and all federal employees, with the exception of those in the military and public safety, until the budget is balanced.
The candidates generally honored Reagan’s rule of not speaking ill of fellow Republicans.
U.S. Representative Ron Paul of Texas did say a national sales tax, like the one proposed by Cain, “would be a disaster.”
U.S. Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota told the audience that the party needed to nominate someone who would “stand strong and make sure there is no compromise” when it comes to repealing initiatives pushed by President Barack Obama’s administration.
Former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania noted how this week he completed visits to all 99 of Iowa’s counties.
“I’ve got the track record on international, domestic, economics, on life and faith and family, to deliver the message to contrast with Barack Obama,” said Santorum, who received some of the loudest applause of the evening.
Former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia noted the absence of Cain and Romney in his remarks.
‘A Great Group’
“This is a great group,” he said. “There are a couple I wish were here tonight, and I would have said nice things about them. But we’ll skip over that.”
Kristin Jeffries, 44, a stay-at-home mother who lives in Clive, Iowa, said she was “disappointed” that Romney didn’t attend the dinner. She said she has been troubled by how little time he has spent in the state this year.
“I used to be firmly in the Romney camp, but now I’m open to other options,” she said, adding that she is also considering Gingrich and Perry.
The Iowa Poll, conducted by the Des Moines Register and released Oct. 29, showed Romney and Cain in a statistical tie for first place among likely Republican caucus attendees. The survey was taken before the reports of the sexual harassment complaints against Cain surfaced. Other recent surveys also have shown the two vying for the lead in the state.
In the Iowa Poll, Paul was in third place, at 12 percent, followed by Bachmann with 8 percent. Perry and Gingrich were tied with 7 percent.
A key reason few in Iowa write off Perry, 61, is his fundraising prowess. He had $15.1 million in his campaign account as of Sept. 30, slightly more than the $14.7 Romney had.
In Romney’s failed 2008 bid for the Republican nomination, he made a concerted effort to win the caucuses and ended up finishing second to former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee. The showing helped derail Romney’s candidacy.
Social conservatives, who turn out in large numbers in the Republican caucuses, balked at Romney’s past support of abortion rights and the Massachusetts health-care law he signed. Many of these social conservatives have yet to rally around a contender in the current campaign, creating the prospect that they could divide their support among several candidates and create an opening for Romney to do well in the January contest.
“There is only one poll that counts and that’s the caucus results,” Schickel said. “I think Republicans are still looking over the field.”