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GOP contenders make early pitch to Iowa evangelicals

By Peter Hamby, CNN Political Reporter

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Possible GOP candidates appear in Iowa
  • Five Republicans pitch their presidential proposals to Iowa evangelicals
  • The event Monday was the first major Iowa gathering of the 2012 election cycle
  • The Hawkeye State hosts the crucial first-in-the nation caucuses
  • "They are ready to go," a state senator says of fellow Iowa Republicans

Waukee, Iowa (CNN) -- There was no "truce" in Iowa on Monday night.

While the national political debate continues to swirl around the state of the economic recovery, five Republicans with their eyes on the White House spent the evening in a Des Moines suburb pitching themselves to the evangelical Christians who dominate the Hawkeye State's crucial first-in-the-nation caucuses.

The potential candidates made their appeals at a forum sponsored by the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition, the first major Iowa gathering of the 2012 election cycle. The organization seeks to promote "high moral values" and "Christian principles" in public life.

It was no surprise, then, that the now infamous "truce" proposal floated last year by Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels was an unpopular one in the auditorium at Point of Grace Church on Monday.

Daniels, a budget maven and potential White House contender, called for social issues to take a back seat to fiscal ones as the country grapples with a sputtering economy and a soaring national debt. The remark drew immediate scorn from social conservatives, but Daniels has not backed away from his position.

Bachmann will decide by early summer

And while the Indiana governor was not in attendance Monday, he was likely not missed.

Longtime conservative activist Ralph Reed, the chairman of the national Faith and Freedom Coalition, took at swipe at "some" who have called for a truce on social issues.

"I don't know about you, but I like to have a leader who can walk and chew gum at the same time," Reed said, stirring up applause.

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum told the audience "you can't" call a truce on moral issues.

Like the other potential candidates, Santorum boasted about his track record fighting for causes held dear by the evangelical community, mainly opposition to abortion rights.

"I have been out fighting the wars on these moral issues," Santorum said.

Four other potential candidates joined Santorum at the forum: former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer and former Godfather's Pizza CEO Herman Cain.

"We need to be a country that turns toward God, not a country that turns away from God," thundered Pawlenty, in one of his most fiery performances to date as a potential candidate. "The Constitution was designed to protect people of faith from government, not to protect government from people of faith."

Gingrich, making his first Iowa appearance since forming a fundraising committee to explore a White House bid last week, proposed four executive orders that the next president should sign on his or her first day in office, including the elimination of every "czar" position created by the Obama administration.

The three other proposals, though, appeared distinctly tailored to Monday's audience of social conservatives in Waukee.

Gingrich called on the next president to re-authorize the Reagan administration's "Mexico City Policy" that banned taxpayer money from abortion services abroad; to sign an order allowing health care workers to refuse to perform any procedure they deem "morally or ethically objectionable"; and to re-locate the American embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Iowa Rep. Steve King, a staunch social conservative whose endorsement is already being sought by multiple 2012 contenders, suggested that the economy would fix itself if America rediscovers its core values.

"If we get the culture right, the economy will be right eventually," King promised.

Also Monday, there was a sense of relief that the race for the Republican nomination is, at long last, underway. Unlike the last presidential cycle, which began in earnest in January 2007, candidates have been slow to formally enter the race this time around.

Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad endorsed the forum as "the first significant event of the caucus season."

Reed said he was longing for the process to kick off as early as March 2009. "This couldn't get started soon enough could it?," he asked rhetorically.

Iowa state Sen. Bill Dix said the nearly 1,000 Republicans who showed up Monday were devoted party activists who have grown restless with the relative lack of campaign activity in Iowa, which holds the coveted lead-off spot in the presidential nominating calendar.

"The people who are here, they have historically taken on leadership roles early on in the campaigns," Dix told CNN. "They are ready for it to get rolling. They can't wait. They are ready to go."