ABC News’ Michael Falcone, Shushannah Walshe and Arlette Saenz report:
DES MOINES, Iowa – Two months before voters here will cast the first votes of the Republican primary season, five presidential candidates sought to appeal to Iowans, who could give one of them a critical boost on Jan. 3, 2012.
They carried a vehemently anti-Washington message to nearly 1,000 Republican elected officials, operatives and activists who gathered at a fundraising dinner organized by the Iowa Republican Party on Friday night.
“It’s like we’re in a canoe coming up to the very edge of Niagara Falls, and it’s like the river is moving faster right now,” said presidential candidate Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., describing the situation in Washington. ”We’re living in a theater of the absurd.”
Bachmann, whose hopes of winning the Republican presidential nomination are likely to turn on her performance at the caucuses, was one of several candidates who lashed out at President Obama for presiding over a ballooning national debt.
“We are tripping the wire,” she said. “It looks like right at $15 trillion – breathtaking, stunning.”
Bachmann’s rival, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who also spoke at Friday night’s dinner, took the opportunity to acknowledge the quality of his opponents.
“Every one of them would do a heck of a lot better job than what we’ve got in the White House right now,” he said, joking that even though they are running against each other, they’re all involved in “a project called Operation Occupy the White House.”
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich praised his fellow candidates, saying that Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, has been “consistently correct” about the need to audit the Federal Reserve, calling Perry his “mentor on the 10th Amendment,” acknowledging that Bachmann “deserves a lot of credit,” for introducing legislation to repeal the Dodd-Frank bill, and lauding former Sen. Rick Santorum for “taking on the challenge of radical Islamism.”
“This is a great group,” Gingrich said, adding that on Jan. 3, Iowa voters could help launch “the most substantive candidacy in modern times.” (He, of course, meant his own.)
A recent Des Moines Register poll suggested that businessman Herman Cain and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney are the top contenders to win the Iowa caucuses, but neither of the two candidates showed up at the annual Ronald Reagan Dinner at Hy-Vee Hall in Des Moines, Iowa.
Romney plans to return to the Hawkeye State on Monday for two public events in Dubuque, Iowa, and Davenport, Iowa.
His son, Josh Romney, was in the audience on Friday night. The younger Romney campaigned in Eastern Iowa earlier in the day.
Top Iowa officials with Cain’s campaign handed out bumper stickers, buttons and campaign literature to potential supporters.
“Sixty days from right now, we start the process of choosing Barack Obama’s Republican successor and it starts here in Iowa,” Iowa GOP Chairman Matt Strawn told the gathering.
The candidates almost completely avoided taking shots at each other, though Perry contrasted his “wrecking ball” approach to reforming Washington with other candidates, who he said would only use “tweezers.”
And Gingrich offered a bold promise: If he is the Republican nominee, he vowed that “the White House will be my scheduler.”
“Wherever the president appears,” he said. “I will.”
Gingrich also renewed his calls for President Obama to participate in a series of three-hour, Lincoln-Douglas style debates. The former House speaker will attend such an event with Cain in Texas on Saturday.
Iowa Republicans are a famously late-deciding group, and judging by the crowd’s polite but not effusive reaction to each candidate’s 10-minute speeches, none of the hopefuls appear to have the caucuses locked up. Last week’s Des Moines Register poll found that only 25 percent of GOP voters said “they definitely won’t change their minds” before Jan. 3, according to the newspaper.
But noted Strawn, the party’s leader in the Hawkeye State, the clock is ticking.
“Sixty days folks, 60 days,” he said. “Every minute counts.”