Take a nearly century-old theater in downtown Des Moines. Fill it to capacity — that's 1,200 audience members and another 200 credentialed media — bring in a lineup that includes almost 10 would-be, might-be, could-be Republican presidential hopefuls, and it's looking like the 2016 campaign is officially underway.
Rep. Steve King of Iowa, a conservative from the northwest corner of the state, is hosting the Iowa Freedom Summit Saturday along with Citizens United.
The event is King's attempt to have an outsized impact on the outcome of the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses, which will take place just one year from now.
King's big issue is immigration, and he wants candidates to go on the record. He wants them to oppose any kind of deal with Democrats and the White House that would lead to the kind of immigration reform that many leaders at the Republican National Committee have suggested might help the party begin to cut into the huge gap that Democrats enjoy when it comes to the Latino vote.
But King's strong and blunt language on the issue attracts critics even from within his party. The latest outcry came when he saw the announcement that one of the so called DREAMers — young people in this country illegally because they were brought here as children by their parents — would be seated with the first lady at the State of the Union. King tweeted that Obama had invited "a deportable to sit in place of honor at #SOTU w/1st Lady."
Confirmed to appear are a group of current and former governors considering a run for the White House. That group includes Scott Walker, who was just re-elected in neighboring Wisconsin, and New Jersey's Chris Christie. Many say Christie is too moderate for Iowa, but he's had a close relationship with King for several years now. Also on the program are Rick Perry of Texas, who just left office, and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.
Others slated to appear are Sen. Ted Cruz, former Sen. Rick Santorum (the winner of the 2012 Iowa caucuses), retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, former business executive Carly Fiorina, former Ambassador John Bolton, and Donald Trump.
There are big names skipping the Freedom Summit as well, most notably Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney. Kentucy Sen. Rand Paul and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio are missing it as well. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal also won't be there. His office says he'll be attending a Global Prayer Gathering in Baton Rouge.
Still, it's a big lineup for the event, which is a new addition to the quadrenniel Iowa caucus calendar of big events. It's just one item in what will be a long and busy year in Iowa in advance of the caucuses. Over time, there will be debates, photo-ops on farms, the big Ames Straw Poll this summer and, of course, the Iowa State Fair where every candidate is expected to hold court before an up-close crowd not far from the midway and the livestock pavilions.
The Freedom Summit may be the first of many Iowa events, but it's a chance for all of these yet-to-declare presidential candidates to meet the state's GOP activists and to make an impression.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Tomorrow is the first big, multicandidate event of the 2016 presidential campaign season. And no surprise, it's taking place in Iowa; the home of the first big contest of the race. The Iowa caucuses are scheduled to take place in just over one year from now. This weekend's event is hosted by Republican Congressman Steve King of Iowa; a man who's sometimes blunt manner raises eyebrows and sometimes sharp rebukes, sometimes even from his own party.
Joining us now from a preview is NPR national political correspondent Don Gonyea. And, Don, I understand Anderson we've got close to 10 possible or would-be GOP candidates in a sold-out auditorium. Does this mean a campaign is, like, basically underway in Iowa?
DON GONYEA, BYLINE: I think we can say it begins now. Candidates have been coming here for the past year or more, but one at a time. But here we'll have a stage full of them, and the packed house indicates that at least some Iowans are ready for this thing to get underway.
CORNISH: Tell us more about the man who has organized the event - Iowa Congressman Steve King. I mean, what's his agenda? What does he hope to accomplish?
GONYEA: Steve King is a guy who was often at odds with party leadership. He voted against keeping John Boehner as speaker, but he really wants to be a power broker in this coming year's - the 2016 presidential contest. His big issue is immigration. On that issue, he is a hardliner. He wants that issue to be part of the dialogue and debate over the course of the next year.
His language on immigration, though, is what really attracts so much attention. He is very blunt. Let me give you an example. Prior to the State of the Union address this week, it was announced that one of the so-called dreamers - you know, young people brought into this country illegally as children by their parents - that one of them would be seated with the first lady.
King tweeted out from his official Twitter account - Obama perverts prosecutorial discretion by inviting a deportable to sit in a place of honor. That's just one of many examples. But he insists he's winning on the immigration issue. He wants it to be part of the agenda.
CORNISH: So given what you've described, which of the potential candidates or hopefuls will actually be in Des Moines?
GONYEA: The most serious contenders we can list Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, Texas Governor Rick Perry, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, there's former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee who'll be here. Also on the lineup, Senator Ted Cruz, the Texas senator, former Senator Rick Santorum, who actually won the 2012 Iowa Republican caucuses. And then you've got others hoping maybe for some attention - Ben Carson, the retired neurosurgeon, Donald Trump always looking for attention and Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard CEO. They're all here.
CORNISH: Don, that's a long list, but aren't some pretty notable names missing? I mean, are they actually avoiding Congressman King?
GONYEA: Yeah, that's where it gets interesting. Nobody says they're avoiding King. But listen, there are people in the party who warned that a candidate who hopes to actually win the presidency should be careful about currying King's favor. So who won't be here? Jeb Bush won't be here, Mitt Romney, Senator Rand Paul. He actually cited a prior commitment. And Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal won't be here, but he says he's got a big prayer day being held in Baton Rouge that he has to attend. So it's also a busy weekend generally. The Koch brothers are having a private, closed-to-the-media event out in California so some people are going there. Some people are doing both.
CORNISH: And separately, we hear that Florida Senator Marco Rubio may actually officially jump into the race. What's going on there?
GONYEA: Yeah, he's not in yet, but he's huddling in Florida with a sizable group of advisers, including people who would raise the money for a run. It appears to be a step toward making a formal announcement that he's in. And we also hear that Mitt Romney is holding a similar meeting in Boston today.
CORNISH: That's NPR's national political correspondent Don Gonyea. Don, thanks so much.
GONYEA: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.