Mar 5, 2011

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5 potential GOP candidates to converge at forum

8:31 PM, Mar. 5, 2011

Written by Jason Clayworth

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A high-profile forum in Waukee on Monday will mark the unofficial start of the run-up to the 2012 Iowa presidential caucuses.

Potential candidates who are absent may stunt their eventual campaigns, some Republican strategists said, while also acknowledging that it’s early, and there’s time to make up ground.

Two of the biggest names who aren’t scheduled to attend: Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee.

“They are losing out because it reinforces the talking point that they’re not running,” said Chuck Laudner, former executive director of the Republican Party of Iowa. “Every day that somebody comes to the conclusion that Palin or Huckabee or whoever isn’t going to run, then they start lining up behind these other candidates.”

The Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition’s annual spring event will feature five Republicans eyeing a run for president in 2012: former Godfather’s Pizza CEO Herman Cain; former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich; former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty; former Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer; and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum. Each is to be allowed 10 minutes to speak.

National news coverage is expected at the event at Point of Grace Church, and more than 600 GOP activists have made plans to attend, including Gov. Terry Branstad and Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds.

The coalition is a conservative group headed by Republican National Committee member Steve Scheffler of West Des Moines. It invited about 15 potential candidates, including Palin, the former Alaska governor, and Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor. Scheffler has pitched Monday’s event as “the largest gathering of pro-family, values-minded voters in the spring of 2011.”

The group gained attention for one person who was excluded from the invitation list: Fred Karger, a gay man and longtime Republican activist from California who has formed a presidential exploratory committee.

Scheffler and Karger butted heads last year when Scheffler sent an e-mail telling Karger: “I will work overtime to help ensure that your political aspirations are aborted right here in Iowa.”

Karger has filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission, saying Scheffler is unfairly promoting other candidates. Karger acknowledged that FEC action against caucus debate sponsors is rare. The coalition would face fines or possible loss of its nonprofit status if the FEC were to investigate and rule in Karger’s favor.

Scheffler did not return a phone call Friday, but the coalition’s organizational director, Drew Klein, said sexual orientation was not a criteria for the invitations. He declined to specify why Karger wasn’t invited.

Karger, 61, said he wants to help transform the GOP into a more welcoming and tolerant political group from the inside out. He said he will not attempt to crash Monday’s event.

“It’s very disturbing,” Karger said of Scheffler and the group’s decision. “He’s so blatant and so nasty about his approach, saying I’m a single-issue candidate, which is code for: ‘He’s gay.’ ”

Laudner noted that in previous years, hundreds of people have filed paperwork to run for president, and that someone like Karger, who has slim name recognition, isn’t a viable candidate.

Bob Haus, a Des Moines Republican who managed caucus campaigns for Fred Thompson, Steve Forbes and Phil Gramm, said Karger has been able to gain attention by not being invited. Ultimately, however, the forum is about the most serious candidates, Haus said.

Haus said it’s possible that those who skip the event may hurt their long-term viability as candidates. However, any candidate could quickly regain ground in Iowa with hard work and one-on-one meetings with the party’s core voters, he said.

Nonetheless, he called Monday’s event “a pretty big deal.”

“I think many are on their own time frame, and they’re going to figure out when and if they want to get in according to their own schedule,” Haus said.