(Photo: REUTERS / Andrew Harrer)
Six Republican presidential candidates are slated to attend Saturday’s gathering of an estimated 1,000 Christian conservatives in Iowa – but not Mitt Romney. His campaign doesn’t feel comfortable “in this arena,” the activist group organizing the event said.
The Former Massachusetts governor is not coming “because probably he doesn’t want to be there,” Steve Scheffler, president of the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition that is hosting a presidential forum in Des Moines Saturday, told CNN.
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus will be a special guest at the forum, which will be attended by presidential candidates Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, former Godfather’s Pizza CEO Herman Cain, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Texas Rep. Ron Paul and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.
“Tell me what there is to fear by coming to this event – to making their case?” Scheffler, whose group promotes morality and Christian principles in government, asked, referring to Romney’s campaign. “Why have the six other candidates accepted and the perceived frontrunner decided not to come?”
The non-profit coalition “bent over backwards to tell [Romney’s campaign] this is not a threatening environment,” Scheffler added. “I have to conclude that they don’t feel comfortable in this arena.”
Romney was in Iowa Thursday, his first trip to the state since August, and he shared his jobs-focused message with residents of the Hawkeye state, emphasizing his commitment to Iowa and its caucus. But one of three events he attended drew just 36 people, Scheffler pointed out. “And he’s elected not to come to an event that’s going to have 1,000 people? Apparently he does not want to be in a setting with social and economic conservatives, I guess.”
In 2008, Iowa was Romney’s priority but he got just 25 percent of the caucus vote and came in a distant second to former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. This time, with Huckabee not around, Romney can expect a better performance. But he is spending more time and money in New Hampshire, Nevada and Florida, while his supporters are quietly working in Iowa.
But that may not work, Scheffler suggested. “If he’s the nominee and he’s basically talking to one constituency, not another – especially in an important swing state like Iowa – I think that’s a major mistake.”
The support for Perry, Romney’s main rival, has dropped recently but his campaign has enough money to keep going against the former Massachusetts governor. And Romney’s no-show at the weekend gathering in this crucial state can be seen as a mistake, especially at a time when his Mormon faith has become an issue in his run for the GOP presidential nomination.
Pastor Robert Jeffress of First Baptist Church of Dallas called Mormonism a “cult” minutes after introducing Perry at a recent Values Voter Summit in Washington, D.C. Other evangelical leaders followed suit. Some also spoke in favor of the Latter-day Saints, but for many evangelical Christians, a candidate’s faith is a key consideration.
Romney may need to make amends soon. Another similar forum is planned for Nov. 19 in Des Moines by Bob Vander Plaats’ Family Leader organization. And Plaats is explicit that he will highlight Romney’s absence in gatherings of conservative Christians.
“If he doesn’t come, I guarantee you every 30 minutes of the forum we will stop and have a commercial that says why we invited Romney and how he chose not to come,” Plaats told The Huffington Post. “You bet it would air on TV. We will make that known.”