Iowa Freedom Summit: Kickoff and wrap-up

The live-blogging fell to the wayside earlier today, as the dynamics of the Iowa Freedom Summit press room has had the Townhall team bouncing around quite a bit. That is usually what happens at live political forums like this. No event strategy survives first contact with the politicos, and we spent time trying to track down interview subjects, work through changing schedules, and leaving time to watch the most prominent speakers. By the time Mike Huckabee got up to speak at the end, most of us felt like this:


We had lots of politicians come through, and activists, and their organizers. Several national political reporters showed up, too — Jon Karl of ABC, for instance, and Time’s Mark Halperin, and our friend Robert Costa of the Washington Post. I chatted a bit with Toby Harnden and Javier Manjarres. Most of the media seemed more local, including Townhall columnist and radio host Steve Deace, who set up shop next to us.

A few story lines will likely emerge from this summit. First, despite Steve King’s reputation and his track record on the issue, immigration was at best a third-tier subject. There were no addresses that focused on it as a primary or even secondary subject, and what mentions were made were reiterations of the broad conservative position: border security, employer enforcement, and opposition to Obama’s unilateral moves. The demonstrators who spent the day outside — a nicer day than was expected — will have a tough time pulling a quote from anyone to use as evidence of extreeeeeeeeemists.

In the 2016 sweepstakes, the standout performances would probably go to Ted Cruz, Scott Walker, and Rick Perry. For Cruz, that’s delivering on expectations, as he’s well known by the grassroots for his oratory skills and passionate commitment. Walker, who has spent most of his time the last few years fighting for his reforms in Wisconsin, may have made a bigger impact with a surprisingly passionate speech, starting off with some self-deprecating humor and ending up giving something close to a stemwinder.

The order of speakers got juggled around too, and led to a strange up-and-down effect at the end. Sarah Palin, who was supposed to be the keynote speaker, gave a crowd-pleasing but  stream-of-consciousness address. She offered support for King for his part in the revolt against Boehner, which got a large round of applause.  However, her speech seemed to run out of gas after a few minutes, and the audience responses thinned out notably. Rick Perry followed with a powerful and energetic speech that fired up the crowd once again. He hammered Obama on immigration, and then shouted down protesters by promising them more of the fight for the next two years. Perry hit a number of points that he has regularly made, but this audience ate it up. Chris Christie then delivered a lower-key speech, sharp and intelligent but not particularly rousing. Mike Huckabee gave a warm and affecting speech but didn’t pick the energy level up much — and by that time, a number of people had checked out after the event ran 90 minutes over its scheduled ending time.

Dr. Ben Carson got lots of attention here, and delivered an intriguingly personal speech — also using self-deprecating humor, but using a soft-spoken, thoughtful address rather than a rallying speech. The audience received it enthusiastically, but the media sharpened their pencils for the press availability afterward. He seemed to struggle a bit when pressed for details, especially on abortion and same-sex marriage.

We spoke to a few others, on and off camera. I posted the interview with Marsha Blackburn, but I had a great talk with Ambassador John Bolton that somehow never got saved to the disk. His speech, like many others here, focused on national security, and we’ll redo the interview this week for my show because Bolton made some great points about why that issue is resonating now. Carly Fiorina stopped by for an interview as well, and we spoke about crony capitalism and Too Big to Fail (I’ll have that up tomorrow or Monday). Donald Trump and Rick Santorum made their press room tours at about the same time, drawing a lot of media attention when they chatted informally for a couple of minutes. Mike Huckabee dropped in later in the afternoon, but the place began to spin down to a conclusion by the time Palin took the stage.

Tomorrow, Cruz will make his way out to California to debate Marco Rubio and Rand Paul, neither of whom appeared here, in a forum put together by Charles Koch and moderated by ABC’s Jon Karl. The 2016 primary season is now more or less officially open, and this wasn’t a bad way to start it off. The big winners here are Cruz, Perry, and Walker, not necessarily in that order. Those who skipped this kickoff may have some ground to make up in Iowa, and perhaps more broadly than that.