ABC News Michael Falcone reports:
DES MOINES — Mitt Romney was nowhere near Iowa this weekend, but at three major political events held here on Saturday night, he took a beating by proxy. And his absence from the early caucus state was precisely the reason for the ill-will, which flowed freely from the mouths of prominent Republicans and Democrats alike.
“Romney was the only one who stiffed us,” influential Iowa social conservative leader Bob Vander Plaats complained after a presidential candidate forum organized by the family values-focused organization he runs in the state.
“I think that’s gone with his persona and how he’s treating, Iowa, which happens to be a swing state. And he wants to win the presidency, which tells me that he lacks judgment,” Vander Plaats told reporters. “And if he lacks judgment I think people all across America have to say, ‘is he the right candidate?’”
Six Republican presidential hopefuls, including Newt Gingrich and Herman Cain, who have been polling among the top three contenders nationally, and Ron Paul, who appears to be in contention for a strong finish in this state’s Jan. 3 caucuses, gathered around a large wooden table at a church in Des Moines on Saturday night for what was billed as a “Thanksgiving Family Forum.”
They spent two hours discussing their faith, their personal struggles and their plans for the country in an emotional session that left at least three of the candidates fighting back tears.
Romney’s name came up only once at the event when Cain lamented the Obama administration-backed requirement that individuals buy health insurance, a feature of the plan Romney supported as governor of Massachusetts.
“If only Romney were here to respond,” the forum’s moderator, GOP pollster Frank Luntz, joked.
Romney’s absence was also felt at an event hall in nearby Altoona, Iowa where the state’s Republican Gov. Terry Branstad was celebrating his 65th birthday at a fundraising dinner.
“I would’ve preferred if Mitt Romney had came — had come to the event,” Branstad told ABC News at his party where he mingled with the same six candidates who spoke at the earlier forum.
It was the latest in a torrent of criticism directed at Romney by Branstad, who has been scolding the former Massachusetts governor for spending far less time in this state than he did as a presidential candidate four years ago. The governor said he was “assured that Romney is intending to be back this coming week and spend a lot more time here,” but offered no words of praise for the candidate who ranks third in support among Republican voters here, according to a poll released last week.
“I give Rick Santorum credit,” Branstad volunteered. “He’s already been to all 99 counties.”
Instead of showing up in person to the governor’s birthday festivities, held at an amusement park, Romney dispatched Ron Kaufman, a Republican political operative and long-time adviser. Romney’s campaign only recently opened up a campaign headquarters in Des Moines, a decision that Kaufman said was an acknowledgement that “we are getting closer to Jan. 3.”
In an interview at the party, Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, hardly mentioned Romney’s name, but the influential congressman ticked off a list of reasons why several of his opponents were better positioned to chart a path to victory here. Iowa holds the country’s first presidential caucuses, the results of which will help shape expectations for the rest of the primary season.
From more than 1,000 miles away, Romney defended his decision to skip both Republican events in Iowa on Saturday.
“We’ve had a couple of events in Iowa I’ve been there several time I’ll be there this coming week,” Romney said after a campaign event in New Hampshire, which took place at roughly the same time his rivals assembled together in Des Moines. “I’ve said form the very beginning we intend to play in Iowa and I want to do very well there.”
(He is planning a day-before-Thanksgiving visit to Iowa — his fourth since officially jumping into the presidential race in June.)
But, Vander Plaats, whose voice carries weight, especially among Christian community, which is not Romney’s natural constituency, was not buying the explanation.
“The reason Romney can’t move his numbers is ’cause he won’t go to a base like this, he skips events like this. This guy needs to come out and go shoulder to shoulder with his peers,” Vander Plaats said. “If he showed even half of a heart that these other six showed, it would have done a world of good for his candidacy.”
He added, “If there’s one person that lost tonight it was Mitt Romney — by far.”
And while prominent Republicans took issue with what they saw as Romney’s inattentiveness to Iowa, a leading Democratic voice excoriated him for his flip flops on policy issues. Chicago mayor and former White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel who also happened to be in Iowa on Saturday night for a state Democratic Party dinner prompted the crowd: “Can we afford Mitt Romney’s character?”
“No!” the audience yelled back.
“Mitt Romney says he’s a man of steadiness and consistency,” Emanuel said. “And if that’s true, then I’m a linebacker for the Chicago Bears.”
But more than one Iowa voter told ABC News they believed it was smart for Romney to avoid Iowa this weekend.
“Best thing for Romney is that he didn’t have to answer these questions,” Tom Nichols of Klemme, Iowa, said in an interview after the GOP forum, “because if he did, he’d have looked bad.”
ABC News’ Amy Walter, Emily Friedman, Shushannah Walshe, Arlette Saenz and Elicia Dover contributed reporting.