From a distance, the lapel pin on Tennessee Sen. Bill Frist’s (R) suit jacket was difficult to read as he spoke to a Tuesday morning gathering of New Hampshire Republicans, but the message the Majority Leader was sending was much easier to understand.
Frist’s button expressed his support for the state’s first-in-the-nation primary, a spot on the presidential calendar zealously protected by powerful Granite State primary voters.
At the same time, only blocks away, Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) was sending similar signals to a gathering of Iowa delegates, recounting the two years he spent commuting to and from Marshalltown, Iowa, while working as a consultant for Fisher Controls, an Iowa-based company.
Frist and Romney are just two of a cavalcade of Republican candidates dipping their toes this week in the 2008 presidential pool, a group that includes Virginia Sen. George Allen, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, New York Gov. George Pataki, Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel, Arizona Sen. John McCain and Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum. Each of these Republicans will address either New Hampshire or Iowa delegates this week in intimate settings that mimic the kind of retail politics critical to success in the two states.
The candidates were quick to heap praise on President Bush in an effort to draw attention away from speculation that higher office is on their minds.
“My goal is not to have people have the impression of me,” Pataki said after his appearance before the New Hampshire delegates Tuesday. “My goal is for people to have an impression of the president.”
But the A-list lineup of speakers appearing before Iowa and New Hampshire Republicans appears to be driven in part by the lawmakers’ own grander political ambitions.
“Because we are first in the nation, people are going to foist themselves on us,” said Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley (R), who attended his state’s breakfast Tuesday. “For activists, they like and appreciate the attention.”
If the activities of the presidential aspirants this week are any indication, voters in Iowa and New Hampshire can expect more personal treatment over the next four years — with multiple visits perhaps in the closing weeks of this presidential contest. Frist’s very public support of maintaining New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary status was a powerful statement by a Republican leader who recently visited the state to campaign for both Bush and Rep. Jeb Bradley (R-N.H.).
“People want to see their leader, they want to judge their leader based on what they really are, not what they are painted on television,” Frist told reporters after addressing the New Hampshire delegates. “You just don’t get that in other states. I think that is why it is deserved and that is why I support it.”
Meanwhile, Romney who was relatively unknown by the Iowa delegates, worked the six-table room, shaking hands with each person. His speech, aside from the mention of his time spent in Iowa, was largely focused on Sen. John Kerry’s (D-Mass.) alleged flip-flopping on key issues of the day, a similar theme to the one hammered home by Pataki.
“In politics it is standard operating procedure to call your opponent a flip-flopper,” said Romney. “In this case, this guy really is one.”
As for Frist, the Majority Leader charged that Kerry “is out of touch” with the majority of Americans.
“He is out of sync,” Frist said. “He is so far to the left, that he has left America.”
While the common theme of the day was how to re-elect Bush, each Republican spoke to his strengths on other issues. Pataki talked about how in 10 years, Republican rule has helped clean up the fabled Times Square, a place he was once “reluctant” to walk through. Pataki also spoke of his party’s inclusiveness and Bush’s decision to feature moderate speakers such as himself, Giuliani and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
“We are the Republican Party and we are a majority not just of this convention but of the American people and we are going to see this president at a great victory this November,” Pataki said.
A father of five boys, Romney dedicated a significant time on values, a winning issue among the largely conservative delegates. He expressed his support for a federal constitutional amendment banning gay marriage and voiced optimism about the passage of a similar amendment in his home state.
“A dedication to the principles of humanity is what makes this country the greatest in the world,” Romney said.
The Log Cabin Republicans, an organization for gay and lesbian GOP supporters, released a television ad Monday that is critical of several prominent Republicans including Santorum for advocating approval of the amendment. In an interview with Roll Call on Monday, Santorum said other people have asked him about a potential White House bid, a suggestion he would not rule out.
Romney insisted he “doesn’t have any plans beyond 2006,” and vowed to seek a second (and possibly even a third) term as governor.
“We’ll see what happens after that,” he added.
Romney was followed by Giuliani, who was greeted with a standing ovation reflective of his status as national star in the party following his handling of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The former mayor spoke only briefly, choosing instead to answer questions from the audience.
All of the questions centered on the 9/11 terrorist attacks and his role in that event; the delegates seemed unaware — or unconcerned — about Giuliani’s support for gay rights, abortion and gun control.
Giuliani deferred a question about his future plans by insisting “we have to stay focused on 2004,” but he did call Iowa “a great state” that he hoped to visit before November.
“Politics is like the third or fourth sport there,” he said.
Frist, too, deferred questions about a potential presidential bid, but he has said in the past that he plans to retire in 2006 to return to his first career as a heart surgeon.