DES MOINES, Iowa – Three top-tier Republican presidential candidates — Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney and John McCain — failed to show at the seventh annual Reagan Dinner in Iowa Saturday night, unwisely ceding the floor to several of the other GOP hopefuls.
The remaining '08 GOP high-roller, Fred Thompson, and middle-of-the-pack breakout Mike Huckabee took advantage of the absences.
After several second-tier candidates including Tom Tancredo, Duncan Hunter and even little-known John Cox spoke to the 600 guests in attendance, Huckabee and Thompson were given top billing, getting the only candidate introductions of the night from honorary emcee, Michael Steele.
Rising in the Iowa polls, Huckabee used his time on the stage to assure the crowd against one of his biggest criticisms by some in this electorate: that he couldn't beat Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton in the general election.
The former Arkansas governor said on the contrary, he is the best candidate to beat Clinton because he had confronted "the Clinton political machine" in their home state and won.
"I know about Hillary and Bill Clinton's political machine in Arkansas more than any other man running for president," Huckabee said. "I didn't just win once, not twice, not three times but four times in an election against the Clinton political machine. Bill Clinton and Hillary campaigned against me every time I ever won."
Focusing on the Middle East, Huckabee also proposed a plan to become fully independent of foreign oil within 10 years of his inauguration as president.
"I want to be the first president who tells the Saudis that we want their oil as much as we want their sand, and we don't want either one of them."
Huckabee also spoke on the issue of agriculture as a national security issue, saying he did not want to become dependent on foreign food imports the way the U.S. needs oil imports.
"I want foreign food in the future in this country as much as I want foreign oil in the future of our country, "Huckabee said.
Huckabee got some of the better lines of the night, receiving a full-room standing ovation from the Iowa faithful at the end.
Thompson again sought to highlight his conservative background and showcased himself as the true conservative among those running at the top of the list.
"I was a conservative yesterday, I am today, I will be a conservative tomorrow," Thompson said, repeating what is quickly becoming one of his common lines. Thompson also warned that voters must not "turn over the keys" to the Democratic Party, who would create "a welfare state, and who insults our generals."
Thompson told the Iowa Republican Party faithful that the party must adhere to the conservative principles first established by Ronald Reagan, and that would be the only way to a Republican victory in 2008.
Thompson staffers said that they were happy with his speech, saying it was one of the best he has given. However, he was not given a full standing ovation, receiving healthy applause, but lifting only a smattering of people to their feet.
FOX News' Serafin Gomez contributed to this report.