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Wild Start to GOP Primary Season at 'Freedom Summit'

Iowa congressman Steve King says the 2016 Republican primary will be "greatest show in America," and if a summit is any indication, he may be right.
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DES MOINES — Iowa congressman Steve King says the 2016 Republican primary will be the "greatest show in America."

He might be right. A full year before anyone will vote, the GOP contest has already turned into an intriguing mix of ambition, ego and ideology, with at least 15 people who think they could be president.

On Thursday, Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney, the two GOP heavyweights no one assumed would run against each other, met in Utah for a much hyped one-on-one that appears to have concluded with neither man standing down. The next day, Sarah Palin arrived here in Des Moines to declare she too is “interested in the opportunity” of running for president.

On Saturday, Palin joined eight other potential candidates — but not Jeb Bush or Mitt Romney — all giving dueling speeches at the nine-hour “Iowa Freedom Summit,” in front of about 1,200 conservative activists crowded into a theatre here. At the event, Donald Trump added himself to the 2016 list, declaring in a speech he is "seriously" considering a run.

Two of the speakers couldn’t stay long though: Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz had to head to Palm Springs, California, for an event hosted by the political arm of the Koch brothers, the influential conservative family. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul skipped the Iowa forum but will be in California as well.

"It’s all jumbled," said Kellyanne Conway, a Republican pollster who attended the event in Des Moines. "There are wide-open opportunities for many people. It’s also an opportunity to stumble."

It has become literally jumbled at times. On Friday night at the Des Moines downtown Marriot, a friendly conservative collision took place as Newt Gingrich and King were chatting in the lobby, and then Rick Santorum and later Palin arrived at the hotel to check-in. The four greeted and hugged one another, as about dozen reporters took pictures.

Palin, in the hotel lobby, then emphasized to reporters she was thinking about running, although she, like Trump, said the same thing in 2011 as well but never became a candidate, and are unlikely to this time.

The main event of the weekend was the “Freedom Summit” with 27 speakers, including members of Congress from Iowa and South Carolina; Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad and the likely presidential candidates: Cruz; Walker; former pediatric surgeon Ben Carson; New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie; former business executive Carly Fiorina; former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee; and Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator; and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

The emcee, Iowa radio host Jan Mickelson, quickly started off the day around 9:30 a.m. by blasting President Obama’s "unconstitutional backdoor amnesty." Nearly every speaker attacked Obama’s policies on immigration and in their view, overreach of his executive authority.

"Clinton, rinse, repeat — that’s change?" said Palin, one of many who attacked potential Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.

But the Democrats were not the only targets.

"Do you believe that the next president of the United States is going be speaking from this stage today, as I do?" King said in his speech, in a subtle dig at the presidential candidates not in attendance.

Bill O’Brien, a New Hampshire state senator, then more directly said what King had implied. Republicans should not nominate a “liberal” who supports Common Core or a pick someone simply "because he’s been nominated twice." He was referring to Jeb Bush and Romney, respectively.

"We lose when we nominate RINO's," O’Brien said to loud applause, invoking a phrase that means Republicans In Name Only, a way conservative activists often describe more moderate Republicans.

Later at the event, Trump delivered the message directly.

"It can’t be Mitt, because Mitt ran and failed," Trump said.

"He choked," Trump added. Trump continued, "The last thing we need is another Bush."

King organized the forum and was its star, being introduced as the theme music of “Rocky” played and then returning to the stage several other times. The controversial congressman was criticized by Democrats this week for referring to one of the people who has benefited from Obama’s immigration actions as a "deportable." (During Perry’s speech, a group of young people, holding up signs that said "Deportable," shouted at him, asking if Perry would deport them if he were president. He ignored them and continued his speech, while the crowd of conservatives applauded loudly over the protesters, who were then escorted out by security.)

King came with a list of demands. The 2016 presidential candidates, said King, must support a federal amendment that requires the budget to be balanced each year, a specific plan to defeat radical Islamist jihadists in the "next four years," and on Inauguration Day in January 2017, come "pen in hand, ready to sign" the repeal of Obamacare.

Most of the candidates echoed King’s views.

"Whoever wins in 2016, and I think it’s going to be a Republican, it should be their goal to seal that border within a year," said Carson.

None of the candidates announced they were officially running, but all gave previews of how they will campaign. Christie and Walker highlighted their successes in winning elections and then implementing conservative policies in traditionally liberal states. Santorum, perhaps the most populist of the Republicans, said, “we need to be pro-growth, but we also need to be pro-worker.”

"Our conservative values don’t just work in Iowa, I’m living proof they work all over the country," said Christie.