DES MOINES — Six Republican candidates for president appealed to a key group of Iowa GOP activists in the leadoff caucus state Saturday, each trying to position himself as the right combination of fiscal and social conservative.
Participants in a Des Moines forum included several of the crowded field's lesser-known candidates, some of whom took subtle jabs at former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the Iowa leader in recent polls of GOP caucusgoers.
"I did not become pro-life because of politics," former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee told the more than 600 GOP stalwarts at the forum put on by Iowans for Tax Relief and the Iowa Christian Alliance.
The comment echoed former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson's comment earlier:
"I didn't become right-to-life on the road to Des Moines." Romney, who also attended the forum, has faced doubts from some conservative voters and criticism from opponents for changing his position from supporting abortion rights to opposing them.
Strong opposition to abortion rights is vital for some socially conservative Republicans, an influential bloc of Iowa's GOP caucusgoers.
"Conservatism doesn't need an adjective. It needs a leader," U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo said. "It needs a leader who will oppose abortions, not just because Iowa caucusgoers oppose abortions." Also participating in the forum were Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback and U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter of California.
Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Arizona Sen. John McCain were absent from the forum.
Romney has said an awakening in 2004 cemented his opposition to abortion rights.
Romney has told anti-abortion audiences that it is less important when he arrived at the position than the position itself. But he made no mention of the change during his remarks to the forum.
Instead, Romney was one of the few candidates Saturday who brought up President Bush's name, specifically praising the embattled president for his terrorism-fighting strategy and appointment of Supreme Court Justices Samuel Alito and John Roberts.
"This president has done some great things," he said. "I know it's very popular these days to criticize him." In referring to Bush's high court picks, Romney made only passing reference to his own position on abortion.
"It is essential that we have a Republican president who is pro-life and pro-family and pro-strong military," he said.
Alina Severs of Clarksville said she thought Huckabee and Tancredo were more impressive than the others, "because of their strong commitment to God's principles." The 23-year-old lobbyist said Romney was "impressive," but did not seem as convincing as some of the others.
"He's a good speaker, but he didn't come across as committed to conservative standards as I had hoped," she said.
The event was the 2008 campaign's second multi-candidate event in Iowa.
The candidates had 20 minutes to speak and were asked to answer specific questions about gay marriage, immigration, stem cell research, as well as taxes and spending.
The mood at the event was polite and reserved. More than 100 of the roughly 800 seats stayed empty throughout the forum, and more than 100 emptied after Romney finished speaking, two-thirds of the way through the event.
Those who stayed cheered loudest, giving the forum's most exuberant ovations to Tancredo and Hunter after their comments criticizing the recently defeated attempt in Congress to allow illegal immigrants to attain legal status.
"I'm going to build that fence in six months," Hunter said about improving security on the U.S. border, to a standing ovation.
Giuliani was campaigning in California and Louisiana, aides said. McCain was in his home state.
Both rank near the top of national polls and have emphasized spending restraint in their campaigns, but their positions on some issues give some conservatives pause. Giuliani supports abortion rights and gay rights, while McCain backs legislation providing a means for illegal immigrants to become citizens.
Giuliani and McCain decided last month not to participate in Ames straw poll, a traditionally important first test of organizing strength for the caucuses.
Brownback drew the distinction with the politically active audience.
"I'm not going to skip Iowa and I'm going to fully participate in the straw poll in Iowa," Brownback said.