By MICHAEL FALCONE and AMY WALTER
In a nod to the issues likely to drive turnout among Iowa Caucus-goers less than one year from now, five potential GOP presidential hopefuls gathered outside Des Moines last night to talk about religion, family values and how a ballooning national debt is not just a fiscal problem, it’s a moral one.
“We need to be a country that turns toward God, not a country that turns away from God,” former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty told several hundred Iowans who gathered for what the state’s Republican Gov. Terry Branstad labeled the “first significant event of the caucus season.”
“The constitution,” Pawlenty said, “was designed to protect people of faith from government, not to protect government from people of faith.”
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, fresh off the announcement of the exploratory phase of his presidential campaign, said the country was in need of “deep” and “profound” political change.
“I think that we are at a crossroads that we cannot hide from,” Gingrich said.
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum joked that he had been such a devoted leader on issues like abortion and traditional marriage during his time in the U.S. Senate that his own children came to believe his first name was “ultra” (as in “ultra conservative.)
“Once you stick your head out on the social issues, once you fight for the moral fabric of our country” he said, “you’re labeled.”
Two other potential candidates — Georgia businessman Herman Cain and former Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer — both of whom have officially formed exploratory committees also courted Hawkeye State voters at last night’s event organized by the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition.
But as ABC’s Jonathan Karl pointed out on “Good Morning America” today, the event was not only notable for who was there but also for who was not. There was no sign of the Republican who won the Iowa Caucuses in 2008 — former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (he was traveling in South Carolina to promote his new book), nor of Mitt Romney, who delivered a pointed critique of President Obama in New Hampshire last weekend (campaign aides said the former Massachusetts governor had a scheduling conflict), nor of Sarah Palin (she was making a big splash on British television with her BBC interview) or Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour. http://abcn.ws/eExXyC
Notably, it looks like Barbour is going to be making a serious play in Iowa. He’s speaking to Scott County Republicans at an event in the eastern party of the state next week, he just announced he would be participating in a Mar. 26 forum organized by Rep. Steve King and his political action committee recently signed up veteran Republican communications maestro Jim Dyke, who served as communications director at the Republican National Committee during George W. Bush’s 2004 re-election campaign.
As one top Iowa GOP strategist told The Note, Barbour has great profile for the state. He can talk agriculture issues with the guys at the co-op one minute and then give a great speech to the local chamber of commerce the next. His event next week, organized by the Iowa Republican Party, will be a key early test of his appeal.
(And, in case you missed last night’s forum, here’s video of the full event, courtesy of C-SPAN: http://cs.pn/fLYbFv)
NOTABLE: The five candidates at last night’s forum weren’t the only ones who made a splash in Iowa yesterday. The private jet emblazoned with the “Trump” name that landed at the Des Moines airport was hard to miss. It arrived yesterday morning carrying Michael Cohen, a top adviser to Donald Trump. Cohen had a full schedule of meetings with many of the state’s political movers and shakers to check out the prospects for a Trump for President campaign. http://abcn.ws/fLCKFp
“He's made a tremendous fortune for himself and what would be fabulous is to see him put that ability and his talents to work for the rest of us,” Cohen told reporters in Iowa on Monday. Trump recently appeared on the season opener of his television show, “The Apprentice.” He has said he will wait until June before making an official announcement about a presidential bid.
ON THE HILL: KEY TESTS ON SPENDING. Senators are gearing up for two test votes today that will provide an important indicator of whether we are headed toward another possible government shutdown. Votes are expected on two continuing resolutions — a Republican proposal that would trim $57 billion from 2010 spending levels and a Democratic one that would cut $6.5 billion.
ABC's Matthew Jaffe lays out the stakes: "Today’s votes appear to be more symbolic than productive: both measures will go down to defeat, as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid acknowledged Monday. At the same time, though, the votes will be an interesting chance to see how the parties can stick together at the risk of political peril for some key lawmakers on either side. On the Democratic side, will senators like Claire McCaskill and Jon Tester hold the party line or bolt in an effort to be seen as more fiscally responsible? On the GOP side, will senators like Olympia Snowe stick with the party or cross the aisle so as not to be seen as supporting the House cuts that have been called 'extreme' and 'reckless'?"
SEN. MANCHIN: OBAMA HAS ‘FAILED TO LEAD’: For all the talk of Tea Party defections on the spending proposals, don't forget about moderate Democratic senators who are up for re-election next year. Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, for example, plans to deliver a floor speech today challenging President Obama to lead in the CR negotiations. He will also announce his intention to vote against both proposals. “We will likely have votes on two proposals today, and both our options are extremely partisan and unrealistic. And neither one will pass,” Manchin plans to say. “Why are we doing all this when the most powerful person in these negotiations — our President — has failed to lead this debate or offer a serious proposal for spending and cuts that he would be willing to fight for?”
ON TODAY’S “TOP LINE.” ABC’s Rick Klein and Jonathan Karl interview Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union, about the tensions between governors and public employees around the country. Also on the program, Jeff Mason, White House Correspondent for Reuters. Watch “Top Line” LIVE at 12:00 p.m. Eastern. http://bit.ly/ABCTopLine
TOP LINE REPLAY: MICHAEL STEELE — GOVERNMENT SHUTDOWN? BRING IT ON. Former Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele said on “Top Line” yesterday that his party shouldn’t be afraid of a government shutdown, arguing that such a stand-off would send a powerful signal to the public about the GOP’s commitment to cutting the budget. “I personally think there's nothing wrong with a government shutdown,” he said. “I've been an advocate for it over six, seven months now for the simple reason it is the shocker. It is the reality check that the spenders need to have, that those who are trying to chart a different course need to have, whether they are Republicans or Democrats in the Congress.” http://abcn.ws/fLNKfs
OUT WITH HUNTSMAN, IN WITH LOCKE. ABC’s Jake Tapper broke the news last night that President Obama plans to tap Commerce Secretary Gary Locke to be his next Ambassador to China. As Tapper reports, “Locke is the first Chinese-American to be Secretary of Commerce. The former two-term governor of Washington state, Locke’s father and maternal grandfather emigrated from China to Seattle. As a partner in the Seattle office of the international law firm, Davis Wright Tremaine LLP, Locke co-chaired the firm's China practice. … President Obama has had some interesting moments with his outgoing Ambassador to China, to say the least. Former Gov. Jon Huntsman, R-Utah, who lived in China as a young Mormon missionary, was appointed amidst much fanfare about bipartisanship and politics ending at the water’s edge, but he will be leaving that post in April and returning to the U.S. to explore a run for president against his current boss.” http://abcn.ws/genVMy
More on the Locke pick: “The president asked him to take this job because Locke had the experience and relationships necessary to take on this key post,” a senior administration official told ABC News. “With more than two decades of experience dealing with China, Gary Locke has forged important relationships with China’s top political leadership. There is simply no one better positioned to advocate for American interests there and build on a bilateral relationship critical for the 21st century.”
WHITE HOUSE WATCH. President Obama will travel to Boston today where he will visit a classroom at TechBoston Academy with Melinda Gates, co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, ABC’s Sunlen Miller notes. This afternoon, the president will deliver remarks "on how winning the future in education will require shared responsibility that government, businesses, philanthropists, and communities have to promote innovative education strategies that will prepare American students to compete in a 21st century economy." This evening, Obama will attend a Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee fundraiser at the Museum of Fine Arts. http://abcn.ws/ejF8Bx
Greeting the president on his trip to Massachusetts today is an Op-Ed in the Boston Globe penned by the state’s Republican Senator Scott Brown. “Dear Mr. President,” Brown writes, “I’ve come to believe that America faces three great challenges: jobs, debt, and a deficit of trust. Currently, Massachusetts has an 8.3 percent unemployment rate. While we are better off than some other states, too many Massachusetts citizens are still looking for work. … Creating jobs, growing our economy, and cutting wasteful spending are too important to let partisan politics get in the way. There is a D next to your name and an R next to mine. And while we don’t always agree, I hope we can work together to support pro-growth policies that will put people back to work and make the hard choices necessary to lead our country toward a fiscally responsible path so we can once again lead the world.” http://bo.st/fU06P2
MCCAIN AND AFFLECK: A POLITICAL ODD COUPLE. “When Ben Affleck first called up Cindy McCain to ask for her help in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, she thought it was a joke. ‘I didn't believe it was him, of course,’ McCain said. ‘She thought it was a prank call,’ said Affleck. But last month, the political odd couple of a Hollywood actor and wife of a former Republican presidential nominee traveled to Africa together, and now they're teaming up to bring attention to the intense suffering of the Congolese people and how Americans can make a difference. Today, McCain and Affleck will testify together about the issue on Capitol Hill, but ahead of their testimony, the pair sat down together today with ABC's Jake Tapper to discuss their recent trip to Congo and the simple steps that they say could change lives there. "People are dying, really dying and have been for a long time," Affleck said. "Fifteen years, three-plus million people have died. I don't know that I can make any more argument about why you should pay attention to this." (h/t ABC’s Bradley Blackburn). Watch Jake Tapper’s exclusive interview with the pair: http://abcn.ws/hkvwCU
BOEHNER HITS OBAMA ON GAS PRICES. A top aide to House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, tells the Note that the speaker’s office is ramping up “on energy on two fronts: (1) reminding Americans of all the actions the Obama Administration has taken to block more American energy production that would lower gas prices and create jobs; and (2) promoting our 'all of the above' energy strategy that lower prices and create jobs by increasing American energy production, providing for more clean renewable and alternative fuels, and increasing conservation.” Boehner’s deputy communications director Don Seymour outlines the arguments in a blog item posted today: “As gas prices continue to soar — ‘up 33 cents in two weeks and an increase of 78 cents from a year ago,’ according to US News & World Report — it’s time for President Obama to explain to the American people why he spent the last two years blocking new American energy production, working to raise prices on families and small businesses, and making it harder to create new jobs.” http://bit.ly/gIBGZ0
GOP VS. RICK SCOTT. “Rick Scott, the conservative Republican billionaire who plucked the governor’s job from the party establishment in November with $73 million of his own money and the backing of the Tea Party, vowed during his campaign to run the troubled state like a corporate chief executive (which he was) and not a politician (which he proudly says he is not). And now it has become a problem, some of his fellow Republicans say,” The New York Times’ Lizette Alvarez and Gary Fineout write. “Republican lawmakers in Florida were hoping for a smoother transition. Instead, they say, they got top-down management from a political novice. In his first two months in office, the governor has irritated the State Senate’s powerful Budget Committee chairman by selling two state jets without legislative permission, a constitutional no-no. … He annoyed the ambitious Senate president, as well as a host of leaders in conservative states, by trying to kill off a database to track the fraudulent distribution of addictive prescription drugs before it was up and running. … Most recently, Mr. Scott rejected $2.4 billion in federal stimulus money to build a high-speed rail line from Tampa to Orlando, which he saw as too big a financial drain on state taxpayers in the long term.” http://nyti.ms/g56zME
REVOLVING DOOR SPINNING, SPINNING. “[Former Senator Robert] Bennett, a Utah Republican who joined the lawyer-lobbying firm of Arent Fox LLP, is part of the latest crop of ex- lawmakers putting their background to work for those seeking help from the federal government,” Bloomberg’s Jonathan D. Salant notes. “Rules enacted in 2007 by a Democratic Congress haven’t slowed the revolving door linking Capitol Hill to nearby lobbying offices. Even as they must wait one to two years before attempting to directly influence former colleagues, ex-lawmakers can immediately plot strategy, offer advice and help their new clients navigate both Congress and federal agencies. … At least 17 ex-lawmakers who left office in January have joined law firms, trade associations or other lobbying enterprises, or set up their own consultancies, according to tracking by Bloomberg News and the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington-based research group.” http://bloom.bg/hQs3yC
NOTABLE: ABC News’ John Donvan moderates an Intelligence Squared Debate tonight in New York addressing the question of whether clean energy can drive America’s economic recovery. Bill Ritter, former governor of Colorado and Dan Reicher, Google’s former director of climate change will face off against Robert Bryce, author of “Power Hungry: The Myths of ‘Green’ Energy, and the Real Fuels of the Future” and Steven Hayward, author of “Almanac of Environmental Trends” and a senior fellow at the Pacific Research Institute. The event takes place tonight at NYU’s Skirball Center in New York City at 6:45 pm. http://bit.ly/eDgXsV
@LCGpolling: Barbour will be a serious candidate in #2012 and if there is no Huckabee he becomes the prohibitive favorite in Iowa.
@jmartpolitico: Nikki Haley is writing a memoir. Yes, already.
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