It was the first of it’s kind: An all-day discussion of agriculture issues attended by nearly a dozen potential presidential candidates. It was also another opportunity for former Florida Governor Jeb Bush to appeal to skeptical Iowans, for New Jersey Governor Chris Christie to create some tailwinds here, for Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker to maintain his momentum and for the rest of the field to break through the crowd.
Presidential candidates took questions from Iowa mega donor and agriculture entrepreneur Bruce Rastetter who organized this event in just two months at the Iowa State Fairgrounds in Des Moines. With pizza and french fry huts boarded up for the winter and large buildings mostly empty while the snow melts, 900 attendees and 200 journalists descended into the barn-like structure for the day.
It's the first of its kind because of it's focus on ag policy, but it is taking place just six weeks after the Iowa Freedom Summit, which was another all-day candidate forum where Walker's profile started to rise.
Rastetter questioned each likely candidate for 20 minutes, and the ones who went toward the end of the day had a built-in advantage as the questions remained the same for each. They were asked about immigration, trade with Cuba, free trade, genetically modified food labeling, the role of the Environmental Protection Agency in regulating farm runoff into the water, the coveted crop insurance program, ethanol mandates and wind energy tax credits.
Most of the answers were the same too. Not one potential candidate supported loosening relations with Cuba. They all thought that the EPA overreached and that there’s no need to label Genetically Modified Foods.
The only candidate to oppose an extension of tax credits for wind energy and continued mandate for ethanol in gasoline was Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who admitted that those might not be popular positions in the Hawkeye State but said “Washington should not pick winners and losers.”
Differences emerged over the issue of immigration. Florida Governor Jeb Bush, whose maiden trip to Iowa this presidential election cycle was highly anticipated, stood by his controversial position that a path to legal residency for undocumented immigrants currently in the U.S. is necessary for any plan to reform the immigration system.
"We need to fix this broken immigration system," Bush told the audience.
South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, who supported the Senate’s comprehensive immigration reform bill last year, has a similar stance. He said immigration is going to be critical for continuing to grow the American economy and to pay for the aging population’s Social Security benefits.
“Strom Thurmond had four kids after he was 67. If you’re not willing to do that, then we need immigration,” Graham said.
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker received applause for saying he required some food stamp recipients to be working or engaged in worker training programs and even more applause for his proposal to begin drug testing some government assistant beneficiaries.
Rastetter invited all of the potential candidates, including the Democrats. None in the Democratic field attended. Sen. Rand Paul was absent because he was in Kentucky fighting for the ability to run for both senator and president at the same time. Sen. Marco Rubio cancelled just this week to attend a family wedding. Carly Fiorina and Ben Carson also did not attend.
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who has been performing poorly in recent polling, was the first to be questioned. He was heckled by protestors during his speech. He responded by saying he will deal with them "the same way he deals with (hecklers) in New Jersey."