DES MOINES, Iowa – Four Republicans considering running for president in 2008 courted activists Saturday and predicted GOP success in the November elections despite the party's sagging support in polls.
"The theme is we are right on the issues, not just for Iowa but for the country," said New York Gov. George Pataki. "I understand what the experts are saying, but if we stick to Republican principles we will succeed."
Also at the Iowa Republican convention, Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback said, "The Democrats want this election to be a referendum election. But the best thing we can do for the Iowa Republican Party is show that this is not a referendum. It's a choice."
Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Virginia Sen. George Allen joined them at the convention attended by nearly 2,000 people. Aides to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee were there, too.
The event is the traditional kickoff of the fall campaign.
"It's never been this early," said Iowa's Republican chairman, Ray Hoffman. "I think it's a positive for our state." He said that the attention from presidential candidates will bring money and organizational expertise to local candidates.
"The message is that we need to stand strong for certain principles, ideas and actions," Allen said.
Allen, who faces a Senate challenge from Democrat Jim Webb, said he probably would not return to Iowa, where precinct caucuses launch the presidential nominating season, before the November election. He dismissed suggestions that other potential White House candidates would have an edge because they are free to roam Iowa.
Pataki and Romney both have announced they are not seeking another term as governor, and both are frequent visitors to Iowa. Pataki last week announced a leadership team of key Iowa activists, and Romney followed suit on Saturday, using the state GOP convention as a backdrop to release a list of 50 key Republican activists who have signed on.
Generally cast as a moderate, Romney sounded a theme of social conservatism before delegates at the state convention who are generally more conservative than most Republicans.
"The family is the absolute foundation of our culture," Romney said.
Brownback, a favorite of those social conservatives, touched on issues such as restricting abortion to taking a tough stand on the war in Iraq. Republicans should be afraid of backing the war, the senator said, despite polls showing dwindling support.
"I think we should talk about the war," said Brownback. "I think it's time to have another debate, another national debate about the war."
Pataki has gotten attention for his focus on grassroots retail politics, which he said was the centerpiece of his effort.
"It's certainly something that I love," said Pataki. "The best way to counteract the negatives about Republicans, the best way to energize the party is to meet people directly."
Virtually all of the Republicans say they are spending their time helping candidates for the fall. The governor's office is coming open, at least two of the state's five congressional districts feature competitive elections and the Legislature is in a virtual tie.
"An awful lot of the leaders here want me to come back to speak to fundraisers, to help mobilize the troops at their barbecues and picnics," said Pataki. "It's gratifying to hear they want me to come."