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DES MOINES - Eight Republicans considering presidential runs will court Iowa conservatives Saturday, as lesser-known 2016 hopefuls continue their jockeying to become the most credible alternative to presumed GOP frontrunners Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney.
The event, billed as the “Iowa Freedom Summit,” is in effect the kickoff of the Republican presidential campaign, with a huge gaggle of contenders all descending on a key primary state for the first time.
Former pediatric neurosurgeon Ben Carson, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former business executive Carly Fiorina, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker are all scheduled to speak Saturday.
While none of the eight have formally declared their candidacy for president, all have already taken steps to line up donors, hire staff and set up campaigns. Signing up to speak here provides another hint to observers that each one is eying a run.
Media from all over the country will be in attendance, and other major conservatives figures are speaking here, including Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin and Donald Trump. Organizers say there is a waiting list of several hundred people who want to come, as they quickly ran out of tickets for the forum at the 1200-seat Hoyt Sherman Place theater.
"It has become, as I hoped it would, a national event," said Steve King, the Iowa congressman who organized the event along with the conservative group Citizens United. "This launches not only the caucus season, but the primary process across America."
He added, "I have a front-row seat to the greatest show in America."
The crowded GOP forum is a sharp contrast to the state of the Democratic field, in which the potential candidates -- particularly Hillary Clinton -- are largely staying out of the spotlight and making few trips to the early primary states.
The Iowa Freedom Summit also represents an important moment for another group of 2016 contestants: those who elected not to come.
Republicans, both in Iowa and nationally, have been jolted by the potential candidacies of Bush and Romney, two figures who many did not expect to run. Neither man is making an appearance in Des Moines this weekend. (Three other likely 2016 candidates are not attending this event: Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.)
It was not surprising that Romney, who only in the last two weeks has started seriously considering a run, is not attending. But Bush, who has been speaking publicly about his likely run for weeks and attending private meetings across the country with potential campaign donors, appears to have made a conscious decision not to come here, although his aides have cited a scheduling conflict.
The real reason Bush is skipping the forum may be its host. King is perhaps the loudest opponent of illegal immigration in Congress.
He drew strong criticism from Democrats after a Twitter message during Tuesday’s State of the Union address in which he wrote, “#Obama perverts ‘prosecutorial discretion’ by inviting a deportable to sit in place of honor at #SOTU w/1st Lady.”
King was referring to a 20-year-old named Ana Zamora, who was in First Lady’s box during the speech. She has benefited from the president’s 2012 policy that suspends the deportation of young people who were brought to the U.S. by parents who are undocumented immigrants.
Most Republicans are opposed to the executive actions taken by Obama in 2012 and 2014 on immigration.
But more moderate Republicans, like Bush, are wary of using blunt language like “a deportable" and generally criticize Obama’s policies but not individual immigrants themselves, as King did.
Bush drew the ire of conservatives last year when he said people who came here illegally were often committing “an act of love,” taking jobs in the U.S because they badly needed money to take care of their families. The ex-governor, whose wife is Mexican-born, has urged Republicans to soften their tone on immigration.
While Bush has not spoken publicly about King specifically, Democrats are eager to link the controversial congressman to potential presidential candidates. On Saturday morning, Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz will hold a press conference here with Iowa Democratic Party Chair Andy McGuire to highlight the candidates’ “decision to keep Rep. Steve King in such close company.”
"How do I get my language to satisfy the hyper-ventilating left?" King said in an interview. He said he has already reduced his use of the phrase "illegal aliens."
King noted that the United States Code, a compilation of U.S. federal laws that is done by the House of Representatives, actually uses the phrase "deportable aliens."
"I quoted from the code," he said, citing 8 U.S. Code 1227. "So tell them to shake it off," the congressman continued, referring to his critics.
Beyond King, Bush may have another reason to skip this event: the declining importance of Iowa in the GOP nomination process. Conservatives who are church-going, anti-illegal immigration and strongly opposed to gay marriage and abortion rights tend to dominate these caucuses, leading to the former evangelical pastor Huckabee and then the deeply-devout Catholic Santorum winning the last two contests here. John McCain (in 2008) and Romney (in 2012) both rarely appeared in Iowa and lost the state, but then went on to win the GOP nominations, as less religious and conservative voters in other states did not embrace the caucus champions.
Bush, who is trying to run as a more moderate Republican, could be considering a campaign that doesn’t involve a strong push in Iowa, although his aides have not yet indicated that.
For more conservative Republican candidates, Iowa is an opportunity to position themselves as a true alternative to the more moderate candidates. Huckabee and Santorum still have support among religious conservatives here, but Cruz and Carson, both vocal opponents of gay marriage, are already aggressively competing for this bloc.
Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard CEO who lost when she ran for a U.S Senate seat in 2010, is a long-shot in the GOP process. And like Carson, it’s not clear if she is running to win or raise her profile for the future.
Appearances by Christie and Walker may be the most interesting. Both men are looking to compete with Romney and Bush in appealing to more moderate Republicans. They are unlikely to use fiery language in attacking illegal immigration, and this event could be one of the first ways to determine if Iowa conservatives like that approach.
"I am concerned about right to life, immigration, one of the most important issues will be Common Core," said Shane Vander Hart, a conservative talk radio host in Des Moines who is attending Saturday's event. "Somebody who has supported Common Core in the past, I will have some real problems with."
Vander Hart says he backed Huckabee in 2008 and Santorum four years later, but is open to considering another candidate this year. "I'm a clean slate," said Vander Hart. "I want to see who gets in. I want to meet them personally."