At Iowa Audition, GOP Hopefuls Aim to Address Their Weak Spots

Image: Governor of New Jersey Chris Christie speaks at the Freedom Summit in Des Moines
Governor of New Jersey Chris Christie speaks at the Freedom Summit in Des Moines, Iowa, January 24, 2015. REUTERS/Jim Young (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS)JIM YOUNG / Reuters

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DES MOINES -- The 2016 Republican presidential candidates know where they’re weak -- and they’re trying to quickly address these vulnerabilities.

The political press, as well as key officials in the Republican Party, are already assessing the likely GOP presidential candidates, even though none of them are officially in the race.

And perceptions have already formed. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, for example, is viewed as having a strong conservative record but a bland personality, while New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has the opposite challenge: a strong image as blunt, tough-talking conservative but a more limited record of delivering on core GOP issues.

At the “Iowa Freedom Summit” over the weekend, there were signs of the candidates trying to break those stereotypes before they harden.

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who won over evangelical conservative voters in his 2012 run but struggled with other blocs in the GOP, spent most his speech discussing economic and foreign policy issues, trying to expand his brand.

Walker walked around the podium like an evangelical pastor, and both showed humor and intensity that was lacking during his speeches in 2014, when he was running for reelection in Wisconsin.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee worked to convince the audience that he isn't actually a fan of the Common Core education standards, which have become a lightning rod for conservative ire.

“Mike Huckabee likes Common Core,” he said. “Anybody who tells you that is being plain dishonest.”

He went on to explain that he supported an earlier version of the education standards, but opposes what they have become now.

Christie, too, was very direct in addressing one of his perceived shortcomings.

“I have read and heard conventional wisdom that a guy from New Jersey would not be welcomed in Iowa. Too blunt, too direct,” he told the 1200 conservative activists in attendance.

“Let me ask you,” he added. “If I was too blunt, too New Jersey for Iowa, then why do you people keep inviting me back?”

Other candidates made more subtle moves. Ben Carson, the retired pediatric neurosurgeon who has in the past compared Obamacare to slavery, at least for a day avoided such controversial rhetoric.

These kinds of early adjustments by the candidates are important. While voters won’t formally participate in the presidential process until almost a year from now, these presidential hopefuls are jockeying to get attention from the press, key party officials and campaign donors.

And the eight who attended the Freedom Summit, unlike Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney, who skipped this event, don’t already have firmly established political brands.