It must be the eve of an election, because the political conference season is in full swing. The latest: Saturday’s Conservative Principles Political Action Committee Conference in Des Moines, Iowa (not to be confused with the Conservative Political Action Conference, nor the Conservative Party Political Action Conference). It’s the brainchild of Rep. Steve King, the Hawkeye State Republican known for his extremely hawkish views on illegal immigration and his outlandish statements.
King hasn’t had a great few months. He was passed over for the position as chairman of the House Immigration Subcommittee that he coveted, and—as he’s quick to point out—health-care reform has still not been defunded. But King remains a potent figure in Tea Party and social conservative circles, and he’ll flex those muscles at Saturday’s conference. Here are the highlights to watch.
1. The Presidential Hopefuls on the Scene…
The parade of would-be GOP nominees will start bright and early with Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour just after 9 a.m., and it won’t let up for the rest of the day. He’ll be joined by Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, and Herman Cain. Add to that Rep. Michele Bachmann, who’s been seen as an unlikely candidate but is now rumored to be close to launching an exploratory committee, and John Bolton, the former U.N. ambassador. Keynote speaker Sen. Jim DeMint has also been mentioned as a contender but doesn’t appear to be leaning that way. That’s a nearly full roster of the lesser-known end of the GOP slate, who need every opportunity they can to make an impression (Santorum, for example, has little name recognition but has been a frequent Iowa visitor.
As presidential hopefuls try to curry favor with Iowans, the key figures in the state will be there assessing the field.
2. … And Those Who Are Skipping
If you’re hoping to see Republican frontrunners Mitt Romney or Tim Pawlenty—or even Sarah Palin—look elsewhere. While the little guys need every opportunity they can to make an impression with movers and shakers in the state with the nation’s first caucuses, the big dogs are nowhere near the conference, which doesn’t have the cachet of CPAC. And with the unpredictable King helming things, being present could be more danger than it’s worth.
3. Tough Talk on King’s Pet Issues
After passing a bill that would defund health-care reform, most House Republicans seem content to let the matter rest for the time being—an acknowledgment that while they oppose the law, any bill they pass now will die in the Democratic-controlled Senate. King has remained militant about the issue, though, even clashing with Bachmann. He’s doubling down this weekend: Not only will Betsy McCaughey, the woman credited with helping to kill President Clinton’s health-care plan, speak in the morning, King and McCaughey will sit on a panel devoted to repealing the Obama law. King could use the occasion to call out his colleagues for not acting more forcefully to defang the law. And there will likely be plenty of discussion on illegal immigration, too. Russell Pearce, the Arizona state senator who sponsored his state’s bill mandating that police check the immigration status of anyone they suspect might be undocumented, was scheduled to attend but apparently had to pull out because of a family commitment. Don’t expect King to drop the banner, though, and watch to see whether he lays out any new proposals.
4. Searching for a Tea Party Foreign Policy
While the Tea Party’s priorities lie in domestic matters, without a unified approach to foreign affairs, the intervention in Libya will force some discussion of the matter, and Bolton’s presence ups the ante. Bolton will bring his hawkishness to an audience that may be skeptical of American adventurism, but he has been granted nearly half an hour to speak—almost half as long as the other contenders. Gingrich, meanwhile, will likely be called on to explain his repeated flip-flops on whether he backs American intervention against Muammar Gaddafi and why.
5. The Iowa Delegation
As presidential hopefuls try to curry favor with Iowans, the key figures in the state will be there assessing the field. Iowa GOP Chairman Matt Strawn is emceeing the closing banquet, and Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds snagged a prime post-lunch speaking slot. Gov. Terry Branstad, who’s warned candidates to skip or underestimate the Iowa caucuses at their own peril, won’t be there, but his office says he has a wedding to attend or else would be present.
David Graham is a reporter for Newsweek covering politics, national affairs, and business. His writing has also appeared in The Wall Street Journal and The National in Abu Dhabi.