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No big stars in a nebulous field of Republican hopefuls visiting Iowa

Michele Bachmann, Haley Barbour and Newt Gingrich are among those attending the Conservative Principles Conference in Des Moines this weekend, but big guns such as Sarah Palin and Mitt Romney are elsewhere.

March 25, 2011|By James Oliphant, Washington Bureau

Reporting from Washington — The 2012 presidential proto-campaign makes another stop this weekend in Iowa, where a smattering of GOP hopefuls will rally conservative activists in an early bid to woo voters in advance of next year's caucuses.

The Conservative Principles Conference in Des Moines will feature Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, all of whom have expressed interest in running for the GOP nomination. (Former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania was scheduled to appear but canceled Friday, saying he had a family medical emergency to attend to.)

Former United Nations Ambassador John Bolton, who has also talked of a bid, will also be on hand, as well as Herman Cain, the former Atlanta radio talk show host and a formal candidate for the nomination who is likely to get as large as an ovation from the audience as anyone.

The star power in the slowly developing field, such as it is right now, will be elsewhere. Notable absences include, of course, Sarah Palin, who tends to avoid GOP candidate scrums such as these; Mike Huckabee; Tim Pawlenty; and Mitt Romney. Pawlenty, the former governor of neighboring Minnesota, has high hopes in this state. Huckabee won the caucuses three years ago.

(And this is where we make the obligatory reference to Donald Trump, who will be headlining a political dinner in Iowa in June.)

If Palin can't be there, Bachmann should make for a more than adequate substitute -- and the fire-breathing conservative is likely to command the bulk of the attention this weekend. Reports this week suggested that Bachmann will form an exploratory committee in a matter of weeks or months, and her entry into the race could have some cascading effects.

Bachmann would chase many of the social conservative voters that Huckabee snagged in 2008 and whom Pawlenty is targeting now. She and Palin, both of whom are similar in style, rhetoric, fundraising power and their desire to paint themselves as outside the D.C. establishment, would vie for "tea party" support. Gingrich, too, has been trying to court the values voters in the state.

But Bachmann likely would struggle in more moderate states -- and there are signs that tea party activists are casting about for a more electable candidate. The Indianapolis Star reported Friday that Dick Armey, the former House majority leader who now heads FreedomWorks, a tea party group, would endorse Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels if he were to decide to run for president.

Gingrich has had a difficult week, seemingly contradicting himself over President Obama's military strike against Libya. He's spent much of the last several days trying to clarify his remarks. He appeared earlier in the month to support a no-fly zone over the country, but more recently he's contended that Obama made a mistake in directly intervening in its internal affairs. His remarks on that situation this weekend will be watched closely.

Romney, who has yet to formally declare his interest in the presidency, appears to be taking a different tack -- at least right now -- concentrating on New Hampshire and perhaps casting his eyes ahead to primaries in Florida and Nevada, where his economy-focused message may play better. At the same time, some polls have the former Massachusetts governor doing better in Iowa than might be expected.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, an old Iowa hand, made some ripples in an interview with KJAN radio Thursday in which he estimated that only "two or three" Republicans in the putative field are qualified to be president. Grassley did not identify which potential candidates he was talking about, although he expressed surprise that Palin appeared to be refining her foreign policy credentials in her trip last weekend to India and Israel. The Democratic National Committee quickly jumped on Grassley's remarks as an indication that the GOP is sporting a lackluster lineup.

The Des Moines conference will be hosted by Rep. Steve King of Iowa, a conservative cultural warrior who is working to ensure that social issues don't lose out to economic concerns in the upcoming race. "If we get the culture right, the economy will be right eventually," King told a gathering of religious activists in Iowa recently.

But whether Iowa voters will be focused on anything other than the struggling economy in their state and elsewhere will be one story that promises to develop over the coming months.

james.Oliphant@latimes.comTwitter: @jamesoliphant

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