DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Two high-profile potential presidential candidates told a gathering of hundreds of conservative Republicans on Saturday that most Americans agree with their values and voters' opposition to President Barack Obama's healthcare overhaul plan could pave the way for their party to make historic gains in next year's election.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour were the first of four possible presidential candidates to speak at a conservative gathering organized by U.S. Rep. Steve King, who represents a district in western Iowa. King said he put together the event to help conservatives shape the debate as Republicans begin looking for a candidate to run against Obama.
"We need to take this nation to the next level of its destiny," King told the crowd of about 500. "You can shape that destiny."
Gingrich and Barbour insisted that most Americans agree with their conservative values, and Gingrich said the 2012 election would provide a chance to end the "domination of the left and move this country back to the center-right."
"There is a huge difference between Obama and the left and 80 percent of the American people," he said.
Barbour dismissed suggestions that Obama has moved to the center in preparation for next year's election. Pointing to the president's proposed budget, he said, "It calls for spending to go up, it calls for the deficit to go up."
The governor said Republicans can win next year if their candidates stay focused on the key issues of healthcare and balancing the federal budget and don't get distracted by arguments about personality.
"What is important to us is to have a new president," said Barbour. "This election needs to be about policy."
Two other possible presidential candidates, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann and former Godfather's Pizza CEO Herman Cain, were scheduled to speak later Saturday. Also attending were former Ambassador John Bolton and South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint. There has been speculation about them running, but not at the level of the other four.
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum had been scheduled to attend but canceled at the last moment citing a family emergency.
Gingrich and Barbour focused on criticizing Obama and Democrats and made little effort to find differences with each other.
Gingrich said his experience as House speaker showed he understood how to manage federal spending.
"I helped balance a budget for four straight years," he said.
He departed briefly from the event's mostly domestic theme to attack Obama's handling of the air strikes in Libya. He ridiculed Obama for consulting with the Arab League and the United Nations, but not Congress, before making a decision to attack.
Gingrich said he would not have approved the air strikes but with that decision made, all possible force should be used to win the conflict as quickly as possible.
"Once you get involved, you put on the pressure and you win quickly," he said.
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