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Carly Fiorina Was ‘a fireball’ at the GOP Lincoln Dinner

Carly Fiorina

(USA Today) DES MOINES — Republicans exulted in what they see as a smorgasbord of good choices in their 2016 presidential lineup, but former CEO Carly Fiorinaseemed to steal the show at the Iowa GOP’s Lincoln Dinner on Saturday night.

The audience of 1,400 stopped just short of booing when dinner organizers cut the sound to her microphone when she reached the strict 10-minute speaking limit set for all 11 presidential hopefuls.

One of Fiorina’s best-received lines: “I was asked whether a woman’s hormones prevent her from serving in the Oval Office. OK, ladies, this is a test: Can you think of a single instance in which a man’s judgment was clouded by his hormones? Including in the Oval Office?”

“She was like a fireball,” said one dinner guest, Tanya Manatt, a 43-year-old Johnston resident who owns a bridal boutique. “She had a lot of energy, and she’s not intimidated.”

The night’s next most popular hopefuls — based on crowd reaction, a sampling of interviews with dinner guests and observations of the traffic in each contender’s hospitality room after the speeches — were three governors: former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.

“As far as covering the bases and making me feel like he would be a good leader, Jeb Bush was next best,” Manatt said. “I did not expect that. I didn’t want to like him.”

A big honorable mention, for humor and a touching personal story about the deaths of both of his parents when he was a young man, seemed to go to South Carolina U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham.

Graham offered a steady stream of quips as soon as he took the stage.

“Chuck Grassley. Is he still here? The one thing I’ve learned about this dinner: It was free for Chuck or he wouldn’t have been here.”

Iowa GOP Chairman Jeff Kaufmann told the audience on Saturday at the Lincoln Dinner in Des Moines that the GOP is bringing together all kinds of Republicans. “We are a united party, and media — take that to the rest of the United States!” he said.

But there were some gasps when Graham, in a serious moment, said: “If you’re thinking about joining al-Qaeda or ISIS, I’m not going to call a judge, I’m going to call a drone, and we will kill you. We’re at war, and I’m tired of treating the war as a crime.”

The 11 who auditioned for the role of presidential nominee during the dinner at the Iowa Events Center were Fiorina, Perry, Bush, Walker, Graham, retired doctor Ben Carson, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, former New York Gov. George Pataki, Kentucky U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, former Pennsylvania U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum and New York reality TV star Donald Trump.

Several audience members said they thought Perry and Bush overperformed, while Walker underperformed, but still did a good job pitching his status as an adopted Iowan of sorts and hitting hard on national security and “safety.”

“Rick Perry had a lot of energy, no notes and definite ideas about what he wanted to do and the experience to back it up as a former military man. I liked him so much more than I did four years ago,” said Shelley Pitts of Cumming, who works at Von Maur. “And Carly. I loved her. I just loved everything she said.”

In his speech, Perry knocked common core education standards, proposed rebuilding the U.S. military and bemoaned an “underlying pessimism we see in this country” about the future.

“If we will unleash people from over-taxation, over-regulation, over-litigation … we will have the greatest days in America ahead,” Perry said.

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Although several audience members said Bush seemed a little nervous — he stumbled on some words and referred to his notes more than others did — they praised how he explained his conservative record in Florida and the passion he exhibited on education issues.

“To me, Bush exceeded expectations,” said Bill Schickel, a former Iowa GOP official. Schickel also listed Perry, Graham and Fiorina as favorites.

Bush said whether people like it or not, he’s proud of the fact that he’s “George and Barbara’s boy” and that “W’s my brother.” Bush talked about his successes as Florida governor in job creation, school choice and protecting “the most vulnerable in society,” including the unborn, the disabled and the frail.

Walker showed a photo of himself at age 7 that was shot, he said, after he and his brother went door to door raising money for a state flag at the Plainfield City Hall. His family lived there in the mid-1970s. Walker was one of the only ones to insert religion into his speech, talking about his recent trip to Israel and how he was moved to see the spot where “literally Christ fed the 5,000.”

Republican Rand Paul talks with guests Saturday, May 16, 2015, before the Republican Party of Iowa’s Lincoln Dinner in Des Moines. (Photo: Michael Zamora/The Register)

Paul zoned in on civil liberties issues, arguing that Americans don’t have to “give up what our founding fathers fought for in order to catch terrorists.”

Carson called division, the economy and a failure to lead the world the three biggest problems facing America.

Jindal said two major threats the country faces are Islamic terrorism abroad and the trampling of religious liberties at home. A third threat: the polices of President Barack Obama and former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, he said.

Santorum said Republicans need to remember the 74 percent of Americans who lack a college degree, many of whom still struggle economically.

Pataki noted that he was governor when the airplanes hit the World Trade Center towers on Sept. 11, 2001. But today, “the greatest threat to our freedom,” he said, is an ever-encroaching government. “It’s not an imminent threat, but it’s a very real threat,” he said.

Trump, a real estate mogul turned reality TV star, said he can build a wall on the U.S. southern border (“I’m a good builder”) and has already created tens of thousands of jobs. Trump expressed indignation that people — namely the news media — don’t believe he’ll run. He said he’ll make an announcement in June that’s “going to surprise a lot of people.”

Not everyone in the crowd could take Trump seriously.

“Trump! I was trying to hold it in. I didn’t want to laugh too much,” said the Rev. Lawrence Davis, a 63-year-old Des Moines pastor. “Now, Carly, she was dynamite. She knew what she was talking about.”

Former Sen. Rick Santorum (left) and Dr. Ben Carson greet each other Saturday, May 16, 2015, before the Republican Party of Iowa’s Lincoln Dinner in Des Moines. (Photo: Michael Zamora/The Register)

The hospitality rooms weren’t all the same size so it was hard to judge, but a nonscientific survey throughout the night showed Walker’s room, in a prime spot at the bottom of the escalators leading from the banquet hall, was the most packed at first.

“Cold beer!” said a sign out front. Wisconsin cheese and Miller beer were being served inside.

Long lines waited for snapshots with Fiorina, Carson and Trump, the night’s celebrities.

But near the end of the evening, the biggest crowds had migrated to Bush’s room, which was unadorned by decorations, but had an open bar and a buffet of hors d’oeuvres.

Paul and Pataki didn’t host receptions. All the other contenders drew decent-sized crowds, except Santorum.

His Iowa chairman, state Rep. Walt Rogers, R-Cedar Falls, said the small crowds showed that “people know Rick well. Everyone’s kicking the tires on everyone else. But they’ll come back to an old, solid four wheels like Rick.”

Contributing: Josh Hafner, Jason Noble, William Petroski and Brianne Pfannenstiel

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