In a night that had been chugging along predictably at the , suddenly a surprise was born: Newt Gingrich stole the show.
With the exception of Mitt Romney, all of the major candidates for the Republican nomination were at the Iowa State Fairgrounds, each taking the podium individually for brief speeches and then a few questions.
Herman Cain spoke first. Then Michele Bachmann, followed by Rick Perry.
A nice greeting for all of them, of course. And about half of the 800 people in attendance stood and applauded as those candidates left the stage.
But then came Gingrich.
President Obama has driven the country into a ditch, the former Speaker of the House said, and the economy is weakening the country in every possible way.
“The process of recovering economically is not that difficult,” Gingrich told the crowd. “On election night, when it’s clear Barack Obama has been defeated, the recovery will begin.” (Cheers.)
Later, he attacked “liberal, activist” judges for keeping abortion legal. (Louder cheers.)
Then, he promised that his first signed executive order as president would be to eliminate all White House czars. (Even louder cheers.)
And, as he left the stage, Gingrich implored the crowd not to be for him, but with him, because “we have eight hard years ahead of us!” (The loudest applause and cheers of the evening.)
“I’m not surprised,” Gingrich told Patch following the event. “I think any time I have a chance to present unedited, it’s effective. … This is a pretty sophisticated crowd. They don’t just want a slogan or an opinion; they want to know you can get it done.
Tamara Scott of Norwalk said she hadn't settled on a candidate heading into the event, and is still not sure. But she had praise for Gingrich's comments.
"He brought the house down," Scott said. "You cannot deny his political expertise. I think this forum was beneficial for all the candidates because they didn't have to face reporters' gotcha questions."
The Faith & Freedom Coalition’s fall banquet, as it was called, was a chance for all of the presidential candidates to try to swing the valuable evangelical Christian vote in Iowa their way.
Cain, Bachmann, Perry, Paul and Santorum were all treated respectfully and, at times, even enthusiastically.
Santorum, in particular, stilled the crowd into near-silence with a story about how his fourth child was diagnosed, in the womb, with a fatal defect. Doctors, he continued in a story he has told many times on the stump, recommended an abortion.
But, Santorum said, he and his wife chose to have the child, although they knew he wouldn’t survive, and they showed the child to their other children.
“He was real, he was a person, he had dignity and he was part of our family,” Santorum said.
But Gingrich, who has been struggling in national polls – and in Iowa – was the only candidate who seemed to capture the passion of a normally impassioned group, and the clout of the Christian right in Iowa is substantial.
Just look to the 2008 election: That’s the one in which Romney won the Iowa Straw Poll in Ames, only to lose the caucuses when Mike Huckabee galvanized religious conservatives and won.
The evening was particularly important for Minnesota Congresswoman Bachmann. With her New Hampshire campaign imploding, Iowa may be her last, best hope of rekindling any substantial support anywhere, and that’s not looking likely.
In August, , which gave her a wave of momentum she managed to ride for all of about an hour, maybe two. Iowans abandoned her in droves when Texas Gov. Rick Perry entered the race that same day. That was another fickle romance, though, and Perry, according to polls, has been dumped by Iowans in favor of their new sweetheart, Herman Cain.
In her speech, Bachmann told a longish story about a Biblical hero, and she promised to abolish the Department of Education, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Interior and the federal tax code.
But she probably received less applause than Herman Cain, who hadn’t been in Iowa for two months. He entered the hall still reeling from a misstep he made on CNN, where he said earlier in the week: "Abortion should not be legal, that is clear. But if that family made a decision to break the law, that's that family's decision, that's all I'm trying to say.”
He later “clarified” his remark, insisting he is against abortion in any form.