Steve King's Cattle Call: An Autopsy

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
March 28 2011 8:27 AM

Steve King's Cattle Call: An Autopsy

[Imagine the soothing C-Span tones of Steve Scully right... now.]

On Saturday, Republican activists and pols made the trek to downtown Des Moines to attend Rep. Steve King's second annual Conservative Principles Conference. Five potential 2012 presidential candidates addressed the crowd, each for around 20 minutes -- Haley Barbour, Newt Gingrich, Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, and John Bolton. The winner of the straw poll , taken by 127 people: Cain, with 42 votes. The runners-up among the people who actually showed up, in order: Gingrich (13), Bachmann (12), Barbour (2). (Bolton only "placed" in a second ballot, asking for the attendees' second choice candidates; Bachmann came first in that test.)

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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Haley Barbour

A solid B performance. Barbour, still the only white Southerner in the race, opens with the joke every white Southerner is legally obligated to tell: The one about how slow he talks. He looks forward to a presidential race "focused on policy. That, ideally, pre-empts a fear some Republicans have about him -- the fear that a race between the first black president and a white Southerner would not actually be about Barack Obama. His meandering take on the tax cut compromise when he describes how it was covered by "our friends in the news media -- the ones in the back talking." Bashing the reporters in the room is never a bad strategy. He reminds the crowd that he "ran the political office for two years for Ronald Reagan." There's more tell than show in the stump speech so far.

Newt Gingrich

Gingrich does not shrink to fit the room. The tone here is the same as the tone at, say, CPAC. There is the classic Gingrich how-can-other-people-think-that-stupid-stuff surefootedness: "Is there anybody in this room who honestly believes..." and "I recently spoke to a group of orthodontists, and I asked, how many of you believe... " There is the even-more-classic reference to polling conducted by American Solutions. "By 80 to 18," he says, "people said they believe that America is an exceptional country." There's some clean-up of last week's Libya mess, with Gingrich explaining that the Obama administration has erred in not making explicit the need to eliminate Gaddafi. "You want Gadaffi's military to get up every day, and see a simple message: He's gone, want to go with him?" It's a C+ performance.

Michele Bachmann

The breakout star of the event (Maggie Haberman saw as much from the scene) is one of only two who gives a pure political speech, with applause lines, call-and-response, and a sense of urgency and destiny. The line that's generated the most attention is "I'm in! You're in! We're in!" -- she's been saying that for a while. More interesting to me is how neatly she ties together the work of Congress, references to the Constitution, and non-shrill religious appeal. She quotes John Adams on religion, then adds her own take: "You cannot build a nation unless it is build on a rock solid foundation." She knows exactly what outrages and legislation the crowd wants to hear about. "By the way, just so you know, I introduced the Light Bulb Freedom of Choice Act!" There is huge applause for this. "Iowans can be trusted to choose their own light bulbs! They're really smart people." A B+ speech.

Herman Cain

This is what the people want: Boilerplate, quotes from the founders, robust nationalism, and many reminders, at different pitches, of how liberals are the real bigots. Take if from him -- any time liberals go there, it's because they're losing arguments. Cain's approach is the antithesis of Gingrich's, with grand declarations of American greatness instead of Gingrich's evidence of same or polling that proves how popular it is. "We have got to outgrow China, not sing kumbaya with them!" says Cain. He quotes Lincoln: "America is never going to be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, we will have destroyed ourselves." This is what won the room over, an A- , even if the story after the speech was a ThinkProgress interview in which Cain promised not to appoint Muslim judges and cabinet members.

John Bolton

I can't find a video yet, which is fitting; Bolton's presidential hype is more vaporous than that of anyone else on the stage. (Like Bachmann, he says he wants to "shape the debate," but unlike Bachmann he has no political operation.) Sure enough, his only feint at domestic policy comes when he says defense spending could be kept up if domestic spending was cut "even more deeply than some have proposed." Cut in what way? Details, details, details. The Bolton speech is four parts lecture about the lameness of Barack Obama, our "first post-American president," and five parts lecture about the threat of Iran and the rest of Israel's enemies. Had Obama started a no fly zone over Libya earlier, says Bolton, "this thing could be over by now." His contempt for the president is Santorum-esque: "When he took the office, he was not qualified to be president of the United States. Today, two years later, he's still not qualified to be president." But you can see why no one marked him off as a first choice. For what it is, it's a C .

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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