Texas Gov. Rick Perry speaks at a an economic forum in Pella, Iowa. The Republican… (Steve Pope / Getty Images )
Reporting from Pella, Iowa — Much of the Republican presidential field gathered here Tuesday to discuss how to improve the nation's economy. But what was most notable was who skipped the event — Iowa front-runners Mitt Romney and Herman Cain.
The two men have staked their candidacies on their business resumes, arguing that their tenures as corporate chiefs make them perfectly suited to lead a nation in economic distress. So the forum by the National Assn. of Manufacturers — co-moderated by the state's Republican governor — would seem like an ideal audience.
Their absences reflect the fluidity, and some of the strangeness, of the 2012 presidential contest just two months before the Iowa caucuses.
Romney wants to avoid raising expectations in Iowa and only drops by the Hawkeye State on occasion, even as his campaign quietly builds support among likely caucus-goers. And Cain, the former pizza company chief executive who has never held elected office, has been running a quixotic campaign that had him in Washington on Tuesday. (His events there were planned before the eruption of allegations that he harassed women two decades ago. Cain denies the accusations.)
The two men also plan to skip a Republican Party dinner in Des Moines on Friday, again leaving the state in the hands of candidates who are running well behind them in voter surveys.
Tuesday's absences drew the ire of Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, who, like all early-state executives, is not used to being spurned.
"It was unfortunate that Gov. Romney and Herman Cain weren't here because they missed a great opportunity today," he told reporters after the forum. "They missed out on the opportunity to address the No. 1 issue in this campaign, and that is creating jobs.… It was not a situation where [there were] a lot of gotcha questions, but it was really an open-ended opportunity to talk about reducing regulatory and tax burdens and revitalizing the American economy."
The five GOP candidates who did attend — Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul and Rick Santorum — agreed on nearly everything: reducing tax rates, eliminating federal agencies and calling for the repeal of President Obama's healthcare law.
These candidates are all hoping that Iowa crowns them the conservative alternative to Romney. That is particularly true for Perry, the Texas governor, who has already begun airing television ads in the state.
But he is also receiving attention this week for a speech he gave in New Hampshire on Friday, in which he appeared unusually animated and, at times, giggly. The speech has been viewed by hundreds of thousands of people over the Internet.
Perry sought to neutralize that attention Tuesday. "This was a great crowd, good response, and I guess you can do anything you want with a video and make it look any way you want, but I felt good, felt great," Perry told reporters after visiting a diner in Des Moines.
Later in the day, Perry headlined an event put on by the University of Phoenix in Des Moines and streamed live to their campuses around the nation. Perry was introduced by the co-chief executive of the university's corporate owner, who said pointedly that the event was not political but focused on higher education and the economy.
"We're going to use our time to talk about our nation's need for a more highly educated and skilled workforce, not to deliver a political message," said Greg Cappelli.
But Perry turned to politics in his introductory remarks and criticized Romney, though not by name.
"You'll find out pretty quick I'm not much of a status quo person," Perry said. "The establishment's not real fond of me and that's OK. As a matter of fact, one of my opponents has a 59-point plan, and the first part of the plan is to preserve the current progressive tax system.… Some think we can fix Washington with a pair of tweezers, nibbling around edges if you will. I happen to think we need to take a sledgehammer to it."