Republicans talk up social credentials in first major Iowa gathering

Republican presidential hopefuls talked up their social conservative credentials in the first major event in Iowa for candidates in the 2012 presidential campaign.

Five of the GOP figures looking to unseat President Obama in 2012 gathered in Waukee, Iowa, to court the state's voters in its caucuses in 11 months.

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Each candidate (or potential candidate) talked up his record and vision at a forum hosted by the Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition, an event which Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad (R) called the "first significant event of the caucus season."

"How fast could we, in fact, turn the country around if we had a president who shared our values, instead of the values of the secular, socialist left?" former House Speaker Newt Gingrich asked in his speech, going on to outline proposed executive orders to install his policies if he were president.

"We need to know where our help comes from. We need to be a country that turns toward God, not a country that turns away from God," said former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

The forum was notable for its good-natured sentiments by the candidates. None of the five speakers took a shot at the others onstage, or at the other Republican hopefuls who declined to appear at the event.

Instead, the Republicans who did appear — a list that didn't include many of the top candidates considering a run — sought in short speeches to outflank each other on the right, particularly on social issues.

Former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) embraced the "ultraconservative" label that he'd sometimes earned in the media during his time in Congress.

"I'm 'ultra,'" he said, talking up his own work to fight abortion rights. "Why? Because I share your values."

None used the forum to make any announcement about the next stage of their campaigns; rather, the five used the occasion to test elements of their stump speech.

For some, like Pawlenty, that meant the occasional rookie mistake. The former Minnesota governor mistakenly referred to Iowa Faith and Freedom President Steve Scheffler as "Chuck" three times during his speech. (Pawlenty corrected himself with a lighthearted joke afterward.)

For others, it meant a chance for reintroduction. Gingrich, the former Speaker who fell from power in part due to his own marital indiscretions, emphasized his close relationship with his wife, Callista, and made reference to his conversion to Roman Catholicism. (Gingrich addressed Republican voters' concerns about his past infidelity, saying they would have to "render their judgment.")

And for two of the candidates, the forum provided an opportunity to make a first impression with many voters. Former Godfather Pizza CEO Herman Cain and former Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer both pitched their long-shot candidacies to the "values" voters, emphasizing many of the same themes their higher-profile competitors had.