By Stephen Moore
On Saturday five of the leading GOP presidential candidates gathered in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, for the Freedom Works citizens forum “Rising Tide.” I participated as a moderator and speaker.
Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, Carly Fiorina, Rand Paul, and Rick Santorum were on their A game. Their message: Fight a real (not a faux) war on Islamic terrorism, sharply cut tax rates and simplify the tax code, get government off the backs of business, and balance the budget by shrinking government.
As one participant from Freedom Works put it: “In this election, it's the Democratic field that look old, white, and worn out.”
What was striking was that the differences between these four men and one women on policy issues were so minor. The two criteria that seemed to dominate the 2,000-plus attendees in terms of picking a candidate were: (1) Who will keep their word and do what they say they will do in office? And (2) who can beat likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton?
Republicans in Iowa seem to be engaged in a mental balancing act between devotion to conservative principle and political practicality. Many seem to be adhering to the old Bill Buckley rule of politics: Vote for the most conservative Republican who can win.
In the wake of the terrorist murders in San Bernardino and President Obama's pitiful response, terrorism seemed to be the premier issue on the minds of these voters right now. As one Minnesota business owner told me at breakfast: “It keeps me up at night that we have such a clueless commander-in-chief.” He could have been speaking for all of us.
Rand Paul had an army of young people in the audience who were boisterous and loud. Rand isn't going away, and he is underestimated. His poll numbers are weak, but Republicans desperately need his voters in November 2016; they’d better not toss him aside as some in the establishment would love to do.
Cruz was tough-minded on terrorism and gave a fabulous tutorial on the Constitution. Carson was thoughtful and witty, and he conveyed a horse sense on issues that was reassuring in the wake of his last poor debate performance. Carly brought the crowd to their feet for thunderous applause when she said: “I'm the one who should be debating Hillary Clinton.” Who wouldn't pay to witness that slaughter?
My three takeaways: First, it's a strong and impressive field this go-around. Second, where are the GOP governors? Half are gone from the initial field, and Bush, Kasich and Christie were no-shows.
Third, the vast majority of Iowa voters that I met haven't made up their minds. The polls are pretty meaningless at this stage, ladies and gentlemen. It's wide open.
Don't be surprised if Iowa voters deliver another surprise winner in 2016.
Stephen Moore is a Freedom Works contributor and co-founder of Committee to Unleash Prosperity.